Jolting new perspectives, fascinating sounds and warm melancholy melodies were some of the aspects of the opening and closing concerts of the Seventh Annual New Music Festival at the Weatherspoon Art Gallery and Recital Hall of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro (UNCG). Full of innovations, from an orchestra of 15 computers (Linux Laptop Orchestra or L2Ork), generating sounds controlled by electronic wands, to the exquisitely moving clarinet solo of Anthony Taylor, this was a concert for new music aficionados and for the curious, in general.

In the universe of organized sound (the broadest definition of music I can think of), music is made by the voice, bone flutes, hollow logs, wooden boxes with tightly stretched strings or skins, conches, rams’ horns, blades of grass and today, a plethora of orchestral and amplified instruments, culminating in the use of computers as musical instruments.

Music has always been made for personal moments (humming and improvisation), for rituals (weddings and rain dances), for public events (parades and graduations), for meditation or devotion (mantras and hymns), and occasionally for its own sake, as in concerts. It has progressed from the bedroom, battlefield, and ballroom to the church, the concert hall, the coliseum, and now, the I-Pod.

Once the domain of everyman, music-making has become specialized and is often centralized on a stage whereas the now-passive listeners are relegated to the broad spaces where seating could be bolted to the floor. Occasionally performers move to non-specialized locations such as factories, subway stations, or classrooms. The opening concert of the 7th New Music Festival is a case in point, the performance taking place in the entrance reception area of the Weatherspoon Art Gallery.

This proved to be a great choice; the plaster walls, the polished granite floors and the soaring open-topped conical ceiling with its marvelous frieze by Tom Otterness lent its reverberant acoustics to the battery of omni-directional speakers which adorned the floor at one end of the hall. A drum set was placed in the middle, several dozen music stands, 15 MSI computers, and as many hemispherical speakers about the size of large salad bowls, all arranged in a semi-circle behind the percussion. At several command posts, laptops of the MacIntosh variety completed the set-up. The audience members, all young, were seated in rows of folding metal chairs facing the array and surrounding a large sound control box.

The opening work, “Future Past,” performed by three members of The Robert Rauschenberg Pilottone Experience incorporated visual images (projected on two walls) and electronically driven sound improvisations, all of which were directed by the performers from three computers. Prepared background voices fade in and out, speed up to a cackle and then to a crackling while out of focus objects pass behind sharply defined drops of water. When I asked after the concert about the connection with Robert Rauschenberg, I was told that his whimsical desire to turn all sorts of objets trouvés into art inspired them. (To hear sample, click here and scroll down)

“For Every Season” by Bruce Mahin allowed the clarinet mastery of Anthony Taylor to shine. All the sounds we heard were generated by the clarinet and manipulated by the computer, sometimes a loop, sometimes speeded up, but always understandable in terms of musical form as we know it. The return of the opening passage was welcome and gratifying. (Hear sample here.)

The rest of the opening concert was performed by members of the L2Ork, directed by their founder-inventor Ivica Ico Bukvic, who was also the composer of the first work they presented, “Half-Life,” which draws its inspiration from the Chernobyl disaster. A narration, difficult to understand because of unequal amplification, alluded to radiation; the sounds generated by the pre-programmed computers sometimes sounded like Geiger counters and at other times like heartbeats. The musicians held electronic wands in their hands which changed the nature of the sounds generated by the computers, altering the pitch, the volume, the color, the intensity and the duration, as they raised, waved, shook, slid and twisted their hands. (Hear sample here.)

“What’s He Building?” by Tom Waits and arranged by Ron Coulter and Ivica Ico Bukvic with a droll narration and mime by Ron Coulter (which proved that the unmiked narration suited the acoustics better than amplification) was, the program notes revealed, a testimony to “the American dream gone awry.”

Ron Coulter returned to play the drum set in a smashing performance of 13 by Ivica Ico Bukvic which started with an explosive cadenza for drums which exploited every sound one could imagine coming from drums, cymbals, a pot lid, shells, megaphone, and more being struck, shaken, sawed, bowed, stroked, groaned, kissed, elbowed, and kicked!  The members of L2OrkB reacted, abetted, and recoiled to the percussion, always under the control of the composer, who directed the work from his master computer. The audience went wild with applause for the piece and especially the brilliant percussionist, Mr. Coulter.

The wholly different sound of “Citadel” by Ivica Ico Bukvic closed the concert with the computers sounding like a giant string orchestra while the words of a poem by 17th century Croatian poet, Ivan Gundulic, were sung by Nicole Bonfiglio, soprano. This mostly modal piece was the first Bukvic composed for his new ensemble and is deeply affecting, and a perfect closing for this opening concert.

The lovely Recital Hall in the UNCG School of Music was the setting for the closing concert of the three-day festival, which included four concerts, seven lectures, a reading session and walking concert. (See details, descriptions, audio samples and lecture abstracts at their excellent web site.)

Opening with the now-classic “Anthèmes 2” (1998) for violin and prepared tape by Pierre Boulez, the senior statesman of new music, David Felberg proved to be a formidable violinist in this long (18 minutes) seven-part dialogue. Well known in new music circles, Felberg is the newly-appointed concertmaster of the Santa Fe Symphony.

Next we were treated to the world premiere of “Strange Things Begin to Happen When a Meteor Crashes in the Arizona Desert” (2010) by Mark Engebretson, Associate Professor of Composition and Electronic Music at UNCG, composed on a text by Michael Basinski and with images by Wendy Collin Sorin, with Janice Misurell-Mitchell, flute/voice and the composer at the electronic controls. The visuals illustrate the text in a non-abstract manner yet with a direct relationship to the music (upside down for some musical inversions, etc.) and incorporate many primitive and occult symbols. The soloist alternates between speaking some of the text, fast, slowly, or in a mumble, and playing a musical commentary on the flute while the text emanates from one or another of the six speakers set up around the front, sides and back of the hall. The work was entertaining and is one that this reviewer would like to hear again!

After a couple of false starts involving rebooting computers and systems, “magnificat 3: lament” (sic) (2005) by Linda Dusman, with visual elements by Alan Price, showed itself to be a truly interactive work in which the visuals are directly influenced by the sound of the violin, impressively played by UNCG faculty member Marjorie Bagley. At times the motion of visuals responded to the pitch of the violin, at others to the volume, sometimes stopping when the music stopped and suddenly snaking upward as the music rose from the lowest “g” to finally arrive high on the “e” string. This interaction was very impressive and intriguing, and the work, touching.

After a long intermission, a trio of musicians playing live instruments, including the slow motion voice of mezzo-soprano Clara O’Brien, piano and synthesizer-player James Douglass, and Kristopher Keeton, playing half a dozen pitched cowbells, a trio of nipple-gongs and a vibraphone performed “This Window Makes Me Feel(2005) by John Supko, based on the text by Robert Fitterman which is a compilation of Google hits of the title typed into that search engine (see more at The title is what the mezzo sings over and over, slowly and softly, while the electronic voices whisper the results at faster speeds, overlaying the slowly varying held notes of the instruments. A non-interactive but interesting video provides a visual counterpoint of quickly changing views of life and people in a metropolis. (Hear audio sample here.)

The closing work on the program was entitledPolyptoton” (2009) by Alex Kotch and was played by Susan Fancher on the tenor saxophone, accompanied by a prepared electronic track. Starting with low slow notes, the work explores multi-phonics (split notes), the harmonic series, arpeggios and over-blowing. The tone goes from bright to dark, raw to raspy and eventually the sax plays a rapid virtuosic duet with the very rhythmic electronic track, reminiscent of the “Avant-Pop” music of Jacob ter Velthuis (see CVNC review here). The appreciative audience applauded vigorously, and this reviewer counts the days until next year’s festival!

Mysterious Musical Adventures in New Music Festival – I Dare You!*

by Peter Perret

September 21, 2010; Greensboro, NC: Jolting new perspectives, fascinating sounds, and warm melancholy melodies were some of the aspects of the opening concert of the Seventh Annual New Music Festival at the Weatherspoon Art Gallery on the University of North Carolina in Greensboro campus. Full of innovations, from an orchestra (Linux Laptop Orchestra – L2 Ork) of 15 computers, generating sounds controlled by electronic wands, to the exquisitely moving clarinet solo of Anthony Taylor, this was a concert for the curious, the innovators and the aficionados.

There are three more concerts, two on Wednesday – at 4 p.m. and at 7:30 p.m. – and a fourth on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., all in the UNCG Music Building Recital Hall. These are all “must hear” events for the lovers of contemporary music and culture and the intellectually curious.

For details, see our calendar.

Reviews to follow….

*This preview was published during the festival, well prior to the reviews.