Stars, Stripes, Batons and Circuits: American Music For Orchestra and Electronics

If the 1960s and ’70s can be regarded as a Golden Age of American “orch-tech” activity, the 1980s and ’90s might seem a bit understated by comparison. Perhaps the apparent slackening off is illusory, but it certainly feels as though fewer composers, and fewer works, have generated the widespread interested that characterized earlier decades. The change can be related, in retrospect, to economic factors. As music publishing firms, recording companies, and orchestras have been forced to tighten budgets and re-think priorities, they’ve become wary of relatively high-maintenance projects. A cynic might remark that these institutions are merely reacting to past disasters (economic rather than artistic ones, I should add)! That is, orchestra managers and conductors have become gun-shy about the extra rehearsal time that a work with electronics may entail; similarly, music publishers may feel uncomfortable about supplying electronic “materials” within the traditional rental format. Perhaps they’ve also discovered how perishable those materials can be. (Recording tape disintegrates after a number of years.) As I was preparing to write this article, I spoke with representatives of various publishing firms, and I was surprised to note how few recent pieces in the orchestra-electronics genre had been added to most catalogs. Even more revealing was the relative lack of information–program notes, for example, or specific information about the nature of the tape part–for many of the older “classics.” As these works have very limited market value, apparently, they’re not at the forefront of any institutional “consciousness.” (Let’s hope that the upcoming ACO Orchestra Tech Project helps to correct this situation!)

On the proverbial other hand — despite my dour comments above — we needn’t become too pessimistic about the current (and very recent) state of composition for orchestra and electronics! There is still a very active, energetic scene in this country, with composers following the same wide variety of stylistic directions that have characterized American music of the past 50 years. For example, many of today’s composers retain a passion for disciplined pitch control and refined subtleties of articulation. In an earlier era, such priorities might have led them to the RCA (or voltage-control) synthesizer; it’s likely that they would now work with sophisticated computer sound-generation programs. John Melby‘s 1987 Concerto for Computer-synthesized Tape and Orchestra is a fine example, with its tape part realized at the University of Illinois. We should also note the tendency of composers — even the most “orderly,” rigorous ones — to find ways of introducing an element of unpredictability into their work (either the composition, the performance, or both). For Charles Wuorinen‘s 1984 Bamboula Squared, the electronic part (computer-generated at UCSD in La Jolla) is an instance of fractally-based composition. Similarly, figures long known for their work with the computer have expanded their approaches to it. For example, in Charles Dodge‘s recent (1997) work The Staff of Aesculapius (composed to celebrate the bicentennial of the Dartmouth Medical School, and scored for singer, violin, orchestra, and chorus), computer-generated sounds are utilized. But rather than existing on pre-recorded tape playback, they are triggered from a sampler and performed “live” on stage.

At the other end of the stylistic spectrum, free, texturally diffuse, and often indeterminate approaches can be seen in music by such composers as Alvin Lucier; note his 40 Rooms (1997) for orchestra and reverberance systems. Electronically amplified/ modified instruments continue to enhance the modern orchestra make-up. Prominent examples include Tuck and Roll by Steve Mackey (electric guitar and orchestra); David Lang‘s 1998 The Passing Measures–a concerto for bass clarinet and chamber orchestra (all the instruments amplified)–and Tod Machover‘s Hyperstring Trilogy (1991-3, rev. 1996/7), composed for an electronic trio of “hyper” violin, viola, cello, and chamber orchestra. And it’s gratifying to note that the desire to create an entire consort of electronic (or electronically altered) instruments, such as the ensemble used for Wendy CarlosDigital Moonscapes (1982), is still with us. The idea of the “electronic orchestra” is, of course, a long-standing interest, one which takes us back Schillinger‘s 14-theremin piece or to John Cage‘s Imaginary Landscape for 12 radios, or to the collaborative Cage-Hiller HPSCHD which employed seven harpsichords and 51 tapes.

Returning to the relatively “mainstream” combination of orchestra and electronic forces, we might note the increasing use of the human voice as part of the fabric. A number of works may employ vocal material because the projection of text is critical; others may have an affinity for vocal timbre, in the context of this particular sonic mix; all seem motivated by the personal, even intimate quality of the human presence. Three examples worth exploring are Diane Thome‘s 1990 The Ruins of the Heart (soprano, orchestra, tape), Dinu Ghezzo‘s Legends of a Fir Tree (narrator, ethnic wind player, semi-improvisatory chamber orchestra, and tape of electronically generated modal scale materials) and John Corigliano‘s 1999 Vocalise for soprano, electronics, and orchestra. Corigliano’s piece is widely regarded as one of most significant New York Philharmonic commissions of the past few years. His decision to incorporate both the pre-”historic” — the singing voice, wordless, timeless, beyond style or fashion — and the more “futuristic” presence of electronic sound, and to create a fabric wherein one dimension crosses over into the other, marked an important step for him. Vocalise also introduces elements of live-electronic sound modification, and the antiphonal effects of careful loudspeaker (and instrument) placement. The whole projects an unmistakable quality of “theater,” not surprising for this composer.

The Corigliano is his very first work using the “Orch-Tech” medium. By contrast, other composers have turned time and time again to this collaborative performance resource. It seems appropriate that we end this article by singling out those composers who have contributed the most to the repertoire over the years. Morton Subotnick, for example, first began working in this genre during the 1960s. The 1980s found him exploring different technology, in his saxophone concerto In 2 Worlds (including Yamaha WX7 wind controller) and A Desert Flowers for orchestra and computer. Donald Erb has composed many works for instruments and electronic sound – not only the orchestra pieces noted earlier, but a wide variety of chamber pieces which incorporate tape, modification of acoustic instruments, and/or on-stage synthesizer performance.

Beginning with his 1968 Ping and Traces (1969), Roger Reynolds has also created many chamber works featuring electronic interaction with, and modification of, traditional instruments. And he has contributed greatly to the “orch-tech” literature, particularly with a series of concertos for solo performer(s), orchestra, and computer-generated sound. These include The Dream of the Infinite Rooms (1986, cello solo), Watershed II (1985, percussion solo) and, most recently, The Angel of Death (2000, piano solo). Appropriately enough, a former student of both Roger Reynolds and Donald ErbDavid Felder– has created a large and impressive body of music in this medium; his best known pieces may be Inner Sky (1994, chamber orchestra and electronics), and A Pressure Triggering Dreams (ACO commission, 1996) for large orchestra, Kurzweil keyboard, pre-recorded electronic sounds, electric bass, and amplification for solo instruments.

Finally, this brief survey would not be complete without mention of the most recent works by Machover, the artistic advisor of the ACO’s OrchestraTech Conference, who has been called “America’s most wired composer” by the Los Angeles Times. His Sparkler (2000) will be premiered at the ACO conference. Among his battery of works-in-progress, Machover lists a project called Toy Symphony that will allow children to interact creatively with symphony orchestras around the world. He hopes to launch Toy Symphony during the year 2002.

From Stars, Stripes, Batons and Circuits: American Music For Orchestra and Electronics
by Elliott Schwartz
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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