The North Carolina Computer Music Festival opened on Monday night, February 27, with a concert in Stewart Theatre. It was an exciting launch for the festival at North Carolina State University. Brought to us by Dr. Rodney Waschka II, composer and chairman of the Art Studies Program, the Festival is a highlight of the Arts Now Series at the University.
With the exception of a piece by Thomas Clark, the central theme of the program seemed to be language — in the shape of poetry, written texts, and computer-manipulated phonemes. Paul Lansky's "Idle Chatter" (1985), which was performed last, and Charles Dodge's "Speech Songs" (1972) seemed as fresh and wonderful as they did when they debuted. In keeping with Waschka's programming practice, Clark's piece was the most challenging for the average listener.
Clark's "Peninsula" (1985), beautifully performed by Clifton Matthews of the NC School of the Arts, was written for piano and recorded computer music. The sonic landscape unfolds gently with subtle changes in color (timbre) and texture (density). A contrapuntal-like effect is created through the emergence of sound from separate channels and the piano; the timbre at times resembles John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes (1946, 1948) for prepared piano. The resemblance to Cage's early work and use of visual maps as scores is, at best, a point of departure. After the concert, Clark admitted that Larry Austin's "Canadian Coastline" (1981) influenced his composition. Clark, who collaborated with Austin in writing Learning to Compose (1989), is presently working on a biography of his friend and colleague.
Waschka then introduced "Speech Songs" (1972) by Charles Dodge, a piece involving recorded computer music. The text, manipulated electronically and sometimes pitched to resemble melodic material, serves primarily as a study of electronic wizardry, resulting in a vast array of texture and timbre. Only later were we advised that it is "okay to laugh out loud" when so moved — I did hear chuckles around me. Composer Clark aptly commented that this piece demonstrates "how the computer becomes a stand-up comedian."
This was Stan Link's second visit to NC State for the Festival. "In Ida's Mirror" (2005), for alto flute and recorded computer music, is a mysterious and enchanting mix of text, computer generated music, and lovely and understated flute playing. Mary Boodell, principal flutist of the Richmond Symphony, performed beautifully, playing under and inside the score but never "upstaging" the rich tapestry of sound. Inspired by a painting by Ivan Albright ("Into the world came a soul called Ida"), Link's piece, stands on its own without explanation, but it brought to my mind the collective, intergenerational consciousness described in Richard Restak's Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot (2001) that we carry around in our brains Interestingly, I remembered Link's collaborative work with Johan Balaban ("Hissarlik") that was premiered in 2004. Both compositions include recorded voices of children and draw from multiple time periods. The artistic resemblance goes beyond the technical and into the realm of the subconscious. Could this be identified as a composer's "fingerprint," a suggestion that might rarely be applicable to electronic composition? I look forward to hearing more of his work in the future.
I wish that columnist; Molly Ivens could hear the next work of recorded computer music, "Animal Behavior" (1993) by Alvin Curran. One might assume from the title and sound samples that this piece is humorous; indeed, the composer writes in his notes for program "...the samples here are all part of an unauthorized train robbery in a western town in the Middle East — archivially [sic] patented but duty free to passengers in transit." Using a text by George H. Bush and accompanied by strains from the theme music used in "Bugs Bunny" cartoons and a menagerie of other familiar voices, Curran's work represents a curious juxtaposition of art and political sarcasm that rings chillingly familiar.
Beth Wiemann's "Dodge at Mann Gulch" (2004) is a beautifully-crafted multi-media piece featuring video, recorded computer music, and clarinet (performed by the composer). The text, taken from Norman MacLean's book Young Men and Fire, was displayed on the video screen overlaying representational and surrealistic photographs. The beautiful clarinet performance gave the tragic story a sense of calm – providing the listener the means to enter a terrifying "hell on earth."
The first of several pieces referred to by the composer as "chatter music," Paul Lansky's "Idle Chatter" (1985) served as a welcome closing piece. In his program notes, Lansky describes this work as music "your ear can dance [to] while you vainly try to figure out what is going on." Have I landed on another planet, or did my hearing aid fail me today? Audience members who enjoyed this piece will love his subsequent works on the same theme.
Waschka invited listeners to linger a while, visit with the composers, and ask questions — a rare treat for concertgoers. It is Waschka's humor, insight, and friendliness that have made this wonderful world of the avant-garde so inviting. The audience, which has grown substantially in size since the inception of these festivals, was very appreciative of the evening's innovative and rich soundscapes. How lucky for us to enjoy cutting edge music in our hometown!
Readers will want to visit the NC Computer Music Festival website at http://www4.ncsu.edu/~waschka/nccmf.html.
*Violinist Karen Moorman, a Suzuki violin teacher and President of the North Carolina Suzuki Association, did graduate work under the guidance of Rodney Waschka II from 2001-4.