The latest installment of NCSU’s Arts NOW Series, the fifth North Carolina Computer Music Festival, was not for the faint of heart. Not that the phrase “computer music” usually inspires passion in the timid musician — the concept is still disconcerting to many. But that should not stop anyone from rushing in where some concert goers fear to tread.
For one, these techniques are not as world-shattering as one might think. Owl City’s “Fireflies” and similar hits have demonstrated that the “one guy and a laptop” approach to music composition and performance is quite profitable in the world of pop. However, classical fans must be forgiven their reticence. Even though Milton Babbitt wrote his influential Philomel nearly half a century ago, electronic/computer music is still in its infant stages, at least when considered in view of the strong historical perspective of our current arts culture. We are quick to approve of innovation in the abstract, but painfully slow to embrace it as concrete music — or, should I say, musique concrète.
The program opened with Cort Lippe’s “Music for Hi-Hat and Computer,” performed by Chris Nappi, a high quality sound system, and an obliging Mac laptop. Certain acoustic parameters of the sound triggered responses from a computer program, which produced clicks, eerie reverberations, screeches, sustained freakish overtones, and other “electronic events.” It was difficult, and at times impossible, to tell where Nappi left off and Max, the program, began. The result was a bewildering defiance of the fundamental laws of acoustics; natural decay was replaced by crescendo, the subtlest overtones amplified to an overpowering volume, and echoes raced toward an uncontrollable climax. As a listener, the effect was both terrifying and liberating. Fear and freedom are always present when ancient laws are overcome.
Karen Strittmatter Galvin, violinist, presented "Penelope’s Song," by Judith Shatin. While the introduction of definite pitches and clear rhythmic coordination came as a welcome relief, the disjunct fragments of melody and the electronic accompaniment were hardly conventional. The recording of a rattling wooden loom gradually morphed, evoking sound-memories of wind and rasping metal. Galvin handled the frenetic pace, extensive double stops, and effects with flair.
The next piece was for tape alone; "Idle Chatter," by Paul Lansky, provided a bit of mischievous fun in the context of so much repertoire on the vague border between innovative and esoteric. A conglomeration of vowel and consonant sounds, designed to create an impression of coherence and order, created a vaguely fugal effect, but also suggested African drums. Listeners were strictly enjoined against sharing any aspects of the performance that made sense to them and threatened with “acute embarrassment” if they did. I don’t intend to risk it.
Another piece by Lippe, “Music for Snare Drum and Computer,” followed. This piece offered Chris Nappi yet another opportunity to display his virtuosic technique. The complex rhythms and unusual effects called for make this a piece not to be taken on lightly. Another work for tape followed, “Artifices” by Francis Dhomont. This piece was one of the most difficult to appreciate; the obscure rhythmic organization, lack of coherency of timbre, and extreme density made it impossible to impose internal order, which was, perhaps, partly the point. Eventually, however, imitations of various instruments made their entrance, and finally, a thankfully simple sine wave.
The last work, “Yahaney Inlet” by McGregor Boyle, was given a beautiful, sensitive interpretation by double bassist Cody Rex. The bass part was inspired by "Veni Creator Spiritus," a plainchant hymn, and was accompanied by recordings of the natural sounds of the South Carolina wetlands, and amplified by selectively sustained notes. The work was creative, yet simple, evocative, and not esoteric in the least. Music is not always a thing of beauty — but when it is, its loveliness has immense power over the spirit.
Cort Lippe and McGregor Boyle were both in attendance, for the most part busily engaged at the sound board. They were available for conversation after the performance, and a few students availed themselves of the opportunity to engage in an interesting exchange about their works, compositional process, and experiences.
Providing education, engaging performances, opportunities to meet active composers, and exposure to an under-appreciated style of repertoire, NCSU’s Computer Music Festival offers a rare opportunity for daring concert-goers. You may not find exactly what you expect, but if you stay home, you won’t find anything at all — honor (and discoveries) to the brave!