The future's taped

Review of Sonic Explorations festival for Times Literary Supplement

Perhaps all art should be strange. The historical and cultural continuity we seek to find in art imparts a veneer of usualness to it, but it is precisely the usualness of the world we require works of art to disrupt. Certainly the quality of strangeness has been at a particular premium in the art of the last hundred years or so, and in few contexts is this more evident than in the field of electroacoustic music. In many ways similar in conception to a host of now much more mainstream artistic practices – such music shares, for example, with abstract expressionism a focus on the perception of the material rather than representation – there has always been something otherworldly about electroacoustic music, a future-orientedness more authentic and deeply entrenched than the casual sci-fi futurisms to which our saturated sensibilities have become inured.

The Swedish composer Åke Pamerud is a good example. His Crystal Counterpoint is one of many works that received their British premieres during Sonic Explorations, the London Sinfonietta’s recent three-day exploration of the past and present of electroacoustic music. It begins with a vivid aural snapshot of the everyday: cocktails, contented chatter, Frank Sinatra crooning away in the background. But Pamerud soon draws the ear closer to the chinking glass until, suddenly, we seem to enter its very fabric, the soundworld dominated by bulbous shapes and brittle textures swirling, presumably, in response to being filled and emptied by now inaudible merrymakers. To begin with, the atmosphere is calm and luxuriant, but the tension mounts, building to a rather angry climax and the breaking of a wine-glass stem. On one level the proceedings are solidly humorous: who would have thought the secret life of glasses to be so fraught with emotion? On another, the work is every bit as fine-grained as more traditional musical forms. In opening our ears to a world of apparently endless possibility, too, the sense of the future is palpable.

The transformation of the commonplace – to borrow Arthur Danto’s phrase – may itself be commonplace within electroacoustic music, but when handled with skill it can be very rewarding. Often the commonplace in question is simply the sound of a traditional instrument. In Luigi Nono’s À Pierre, for example, composed in 1985 for the sixtieth birthday of Pierre Boulez, a duet for the already unusual combination of bass flute and bass clarinet decomposes as shifting electronic filters draw the ear in and out of various parts of each instrument, exploring their contrasting wooden and metallic textures and teasing out an elaborate counterpoint between the wheezing of the clarinet’s reed, the whoosh of the flute’s mouthpiece, and the dull tap of the fingers working the felted keys. Similarly, in György Ligeti’s Artikulation, from 1958, one of the earliest examples of music of this kind, the notes of a solitary harp disappear into a vortex of fully sustained tones, the instrument itself remaining like a ghost on stage while its reverberations take on a life of their own.

Three consecutive evenings of experimentation could have proved rather heavy going. That they didn’t is a credit to Jonathan Harvey, who organised the festival and put together programmes which managed to sharpen particular angles on the repertoire without going over the top. Though a central figure in European electroacoustic music, Harvey’s electronic compositions are unusual in the field by being much closer in form and design to what most people would think of as conventional music. Ricercare una Melodia (1989), for instance, really is a ricercare in the renaissance manner of Andrea Gabrieli, though in an advanced harmonic idiom and using electronic processing to build imitative parts from a single acoustic line. And again, in a recent work called Other Presences composed for Stockhausen’s son Markus, digital sampling captures motifs played by a solo trumpet and distributes them as sustained broken chords to specific speaker locations around the auditorium, leading to an effect not dissimilar to the great spatial choral works composed by Adrian Willaert for St Mark’s. As the work progresses, the rough-hewn melody and thick timbre distil and clarify themselves, and a prolonged middle section engenders an atmosphere of vastness and peace.

Such works are leagues away from the abstract whirrs and crackles of Edgard Varèse or Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose Pole for 2 received a spirited “live electronic” performance by Ian Dearden and David Sheppard of Sound Intermedia (the Sinfonietta’s electroacoustic wing), a tireless if not always visible presence throughout the festival. A little closer to Harvey’s aesthetic are Luciano Berio’s essays, particularly the wonderful Naturale from 1985, in which a recording of a wistful strain of a Sicilian shepherd’s song is “accompanied” by live viola, marimba and tamtam.

It was a pleasure to hear these important, older works, but the real excitement of the festival came from the new compositions. David Fennessy’s The Room is the Resonator was atypical in using consonant harmonies throughout. Based on recordings made in Bockenhiem underground station in Frankfurt, the piece features a live cello playing around and against taped harmonium chords, which are electronically manipulated and sustained. The sense of place fades in and out, coming to a head with the eventual arrival of a train (though this is abruptly cut off), but the feeling of space and elemental calm endures. Equally arresting, if very different, was Claudia Molitor’s it’s not quite how I remember it, which combines pre-recorded and live music with 3D film to prise open our sense of linear time. The film is tied to the music, but both are constructed as collages so that listeners are forced to piece the whole together for themselves, helped along by a visual conclusion in which a page of the score is folded up to form a cube.

The festival closed with Trevor Wishart’s Globalalia. Wishart is an important figure in the world of electroacoustic music; he turned his attention to the human voice (“the most versatile instrument there is”) in the early 1980s and hasn’t looked back since. Globalalia uses 8,000 different syllable sounds drawn from 26 different languages. It is composed with minute attention to the details of rhythm and consonance, in clearly organised musical sequences that help the ear divorce the sound from any residual trace of semantic meaning. As a technical achievement – and as a remarkably pleasant way to witness the whole of linguistic creation hurtling past – Globalalia is magnificent, leaving one, quite naturally, lost for words.

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