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sfSound explores the interplay of electronics with acoustic instruments at O1C

There was no thematic title for the program of last night’s recital given by the members of the sfSoundGroup in the Old First Concerts (O1C) series at Old First Church. However, there was a significant presence of electronic equipment required for many of the compositions on that program, much of which required focus and dexterity beyond the usual disciplines of instrumental technique. This is one of the features that make sfSound events exciting. There is always some threshold being crossed, but their approach to performance always seems to give a clear sense of both sides of that threshold.

2009 photograph of Matt Ingalls with his clarinet
by Matt Ingalls, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

One of the thresholds explored last night was the boundary across which synthesized electronic sounds can “communicate” with in-the-moment performance of acoustic instruments. One of the earliest composers to negotiate that threshold was Mario Davidovsky, who, between 1962 and 1992, created a series of pieces he called “Synchronisms.” The first of these involved a solo flute playing against prerecorded sounds. The second, composed in 1964, raised the number of instrumentalists to four: flute (Diane Grubbe), clarinet (Matt Ingalls), violin (Benjamin Kreith), and cello (Monica Scott).

This, in itself, was a significant threshold for Davidovsky to cross. While the first piece was, in many respects, a give-and-take dialog between flute and electronics, much of the “conversation” in the second piece arose from the interplay of the four instruments, both individually and through the contrasts of wind and string sonorities. As a result, much of the electronics tended to serve as providing the “ground” from which the instrumental “figures” emerged. It may even have been the case that Davidovsky used that figure-ground relationship of perceptual psychology as a point of departure, turning the electronics into a continuo (i.e. “ground” bass) for the ensemble. Kyle Bruckmann monitored the amplitude level of the electronics and may have been “instrumental” in setting levels for the synthesized sounds that would blend into the textures created by the instrumentalists.

That exploration of figure-ground relationships also seemed to lie behind the opening work on the program, Hans Tutschku’s “Still Air 3.” This was actually a superposition of two previous pieces, “Still Air 1” for bass clarinet (Ingalls) and electronics and “Still Air 2” for oboe (Bruckmann) and electronics. The two performers sat at opposite sides of the stage, each with a loudspeaker behind his chair. One could therefore easily appreciate that this involved two separate pieces played simultaneously, but one could also appreciate the interplay of the four sources (two acoustic, two electronic) arising from that simultaneity.

Electronics also seemed to appear, but in a much more auxiliary capacity, at the end of the program with the performance of Terry Riley’s 1965 “Tread on the Trail.” This is one of the two pieces that Riley composed to follow up on the ideas that had emerged from his 1964 “In C.” Like “In C,” “Tread on the Trail” is driven by a pulse, provided by a Bruckmann, again at electronic controls. However, it also requires an organ drone, which was provided jointly by Bruckmann and keyboardist Hadley McCarroll, the latter playing an organ patch on her iPad. The remainder of the score involved the unfolding of motivic material in a variety of combinations, sometimes synchronized and sometimes (apparently) juxtaposed indeterminately. Ensemble performers for this thematic content included Grubbe, Ingalls, Kreith, and Scott, as well as Andy Strain on trombone, and John Ingle on alto saxophone.

In a more conventional setting Kreith, Scott, and McCarroll performed a piano trio by John Zorn entitled “Hexentarot” (witches’ tarot). The subtitle for this piece is “twelve simple canons for the witches’ sabbath.” Zorn may have been provocative with his used of that adjective “simple,” since his textures were so thick that one had few glimpses of a theme on which a canon had been constructed. On the other hand, that obscurity of basic material may simply have been a reflection of the diabolical connotations of the score, suggesting (perhaps with a nod to Giuseppe Tartini) that this was music that could be apprehended in detail only by the Devil.

A similar approach to “masking content” could be found in Ingalls’ “György Variations,” performed by the entire ensemble (including Tom Dambly on trumpet). What seems to have begun as an arrangement of an early piece by György Ligeti was transformed (for several reasons, including questions of copyright) into an almost Ives-like mash-up of a variety of Ligeti sources blended into a texture of motivic gestures, many of which captured Ligeti in the spirit, if not the body, of his work. This made for the sort of fun encountered by those to listen to Ives with a rich knowledge of the Americana that provided him with so many of his tunes. Furthermore, listening to an onslaught of “suggestions” of Ligeti reminded me, once again, of just how much I enjoy his music.

sfSound concerts are also known for including extended improvisations on the programs. This time the improvisation was provided by Christopher Burns through his “Injunctions.” This was not free improvisation. Rather, it was structured around cues provided by all the members of sfSoundGroup through hand gestures. The result amounted to a study for a moderately-sized chamber ensemble in which every performer also served as a conductor at some time during the progression of the music. As might be suspected, the listener/viewer gradually apprehended the semantics of those gestures as (s)he became exposed to more of them, suggesting that Burns may have conceived of “Injunctions” as an “étude for the audience,” learning the technique of listening over the course of being exposed to the “means of production.”

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