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Until recent years, when Charlotte Symphony started their trailblazing KnightSounds series, the classical music scene in the Queen City was anything but edgy. So it's not at all surprising that the Charlotte New Music Festival was under the radar during its first two seasons, an underground phenomenon. In its third season, with concert performances running in tandem with composers' workshops from June 14 through June 28, CNMF has become a beehive of activity, with a hefty Excel sheet needed to track all the activities – creating more buzz and gaining more traction. It isn't just the music that's unusual. Because the festival ventures into outré venues, the atmosphere is also unique. At Snug Harbor, the pirate bar where the festival opened its concert slate in the funky Plaza Midwood neighborhood, more than a few people wandered in from the street and into the festival unknowingly. Some of the people who bellied up to the bar acted like they had stepped into something unpleasant during the "It's Electric" concert. The Snug Harbor bartender tried half-heartedly at first to hush some others who, presuming the men and women onstage were saloon artists, felt entitled to bark out their drink orders. But the barkeep with the flowing beard gave up his efforts at behavior modification, and my own annoyance at the din from the bar traffic also mellowed as I embraced the vox populi as part of my modernist guerilla adventure.
Starting out with a computer sextet, augmented by some garish AV on a large projection screen, the opening selection by Charles Nichols, "Satisfaction Guaranteed," was visually and sonically arresting. Utilizing the Max/MSP software program, all six musicians manipulated a set of field recordings of ambient street sounds made in New York, including trains, traffic, and a soupcon of ambulance siren. While they were all facing computer screens, not all of the musicians were tapping on keyboards. Michael Broder, for example, was on a PlayStation 3 Controller, the composer was wielding a Wiimote, Andy Ly's remote of choice was a Kinect for Xbox, and most mystical of all, Evan Wantland rode the gain via Midi Input, raising and lowering his left hand in mid-air to increase or lower the volume. The profusion of remotes was not merely nerdy; it underscored the visual disconnect between the musicians and their instruments. There was none of the agony or ecstasy you might see from an electric guitarist, none of swaying rapture you might see from a violin virtuoso or the hunched-over concentration that marks the serious pianist. Except for Wantland decreeing the decibels, there was none of the correspondence we're accustomed to between the sounds we heard and the motions that the musicians were making with their fingers, hands, mouths, or feet. Except for the variations in loudness, you really couldn't tell who was making which sounds – or how their actions could be construed as playing in the traditional sense. Unless you had seen and heard such a performance before, you had to stretch your concept of what music and musical performance are.
Electronics figured in all the performances, but two of the other composers also demonstrated some expertise with acoustic instruments. The first of these was Ian Goodrich, playing oboe on his own "No One that I've Ever Met or Meant." Accompaniment by Susan Epstein Garcia, reprising her iPad from the previous piece, manipulated the sounds of a keyboard, producing a wash of synthesizer sounds over a white-noise that sounded like the herd of cicadas in my backyard. I'd heard New Age recordings on ECM some decades ago pairing oboe and piano, but Goodrich's music is edgier and less pastoral. The other instrument that emerged from the shed next to Snug Harbor's stage was a baritone saxophone played by Mark Engebretson. Now I must admit that, along with cellos and bass clarinets, I have a special affection for the baritone sax and its greatest jazz practitioners, Gerry Mulligan and Serge Chaloff. But in a couple of ways, Engebretson's first piece, "d_forme," stretched my affection past the breaking point. The text Engebretson wrote as prelude, like the music he would play, was a protracted adoration of the single note named in his title. In between these two segments of the composer's solo performance, the Max/MSP Pitch Tracking cues that were intended to variously process the note on the sax refused to function. Some fiddling with the laptop, an SOS, a reboot, and a surrender to failure all ensued before the electronics finally worked. The music, when it finally arrived, was pleasant enough, but it was upstaged by the drama that had preceded it.
I liked Engebretson's second piece far better. Running text simultaneously with the instrumental was a good thing, as festival founder and artistic director Elizabeth Kowalski recited the poetry of "It's So Easy" while the composer played. Compounding the benefit of that extra intensity, both Engebretson's playing and the pre-recorded accompaniment – with the timbres of electric guitar and percussion – had a thousandfold more variety. Engebretson not only played multiple notes, he and the accompaniment went through soft and raucous phases, particularly wild when the saxophonist went into free jazz style over the clamoring percussion. Between the two Engebretson compositions, the CNMF Laptop Orchestra reassembled for Garcia's "I am Sitting in Another Room," which featured a more satisfying mix of prerecorded sounds – birds, sea, wind, chimes, and rushing mountain waters – than "Satisfaction Guaranteed." Video was also more compelling, transitioning from an odd mountain scene to an urban interior, maybe a parking garage, with a back wall covered in graffiti.
Yet the most elegant and artful video of the evening was still the animation by Nichols for his "Sound of Rivers." Flanked by two sprigs of vegetation on a rust-colored background, the center of the video was a filmed dancer in a circular frame, often distorted by the animator or melting into the circumference. The natural sounds Nichols worked with, gathered at Glacier National Park and further layered with poetry, contrasted effectively with the imaginative formality of the dance. Festival program director David Schneider got into the act as a reconfigured Laptop Orchestra mustered for their final effort, Schneider's "Germs." Composed with PD Open Source software, the musicians mostly produced electric piano sounds with their keyboards. Even when some reverb was applied, the sound and the riff reminded me of Weather Report's most popular composition, "Birdland." While his title might be questioned, I could hardly argue with Schneider's music, the peppy morphing mandala video that was projected behind it, or the call he made in programming it as the last piece of the night. It was definitely the most upbeat.
This festival is ongoing. For details, see our calendar.