New England’s Prospect: Fellow Travelers

5th Floor Collective

“Come, then, into the music room,” she said, and I followed her into an apartment finished, without hangings, in wood, with a floor of polished wood. I was prepared for new devices in musical instruments, but I saw nothing in the room which by any stretch of imagination could be conceived as such. It was evident that my puzzled appearance was affording intense amusement to Edith.

She made me sit down comfortably, and, crossing the room, so far as I could see, merely touched one or two screws, and at once the room was filled with the music of a grand organ anthem; filled, not flooded, for, by some means, the volume of melody had been perfectly graduated to the size of the apartment. I listened, scarcely breathing, to the close.

—Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1887)

Collectivism has a long history in Massachusetts (periodic paroxysms of reaction notwithstanding). The Puritans, after all, were nothing if not utopian collectivists; the Transcendentalists, too, had their communes. At the end of the 19th century, Edward Bellamy, hailing from Chicopee Falls, saw his utopian best-seller inspire the Nationalist movement, an organized effort to put utilities, transportation companies, and other such private enterprises under collectivized government control. (It is a testament to the depth of collectivist sentiment here that such sentiment could divide along class lines: Nationalism was for Brahmins; those without the proper family connections instead joined up with the Socialists.)

Composer collectives are a more recent development in the Commonwealth, but they, too, have become a constant, ever since Composers in Red Sneakers got the ball rolling in the early ‘80s. They tend to be short-lived—indicative, perhaps, of their often academic origins and their bootstrapping purpose, a way to bridge the gap between the thrown-together enthusiasm of a student cohort and the geographic scattering of professional achievement. (Even the Sneakers have been quiet for the past few seasons, though their history of resourceful persistence makes one unsure whether to mourn their demise or brace for their unexpected return.)

But some of them do keep going. The Fifth Floor Collective, for instance, is now in its fourth season. That comparative longevity is probably due to Fifth Floor’s habit of inviting other composers, lots of other composers, to join in. The official members (Joseph Colombo, Patrick Greene, Andrew Paul Jackson, and Keith Kusterer) make ample room for compositional friends and acquaintances. At their concert on January 14—“Plugged In 2,” an evening of electroacoustic music—participating member composers (Greene and Jackson) were outnumbered by guests.

The locus of Fifth Floor is The Boston Conservatory; all four member composers are alumni. There is also a strong Chicago connection in the group, through Kusterer, a Columbia College graduate. Two of the guest composers on “Plugged In 2”—Monte Weber and Daniel Dehaan—had that Chicago provenance, as did the guest soloist, the excellent soprano Tony Arnold. The other guests—Amber Vistein and Timothy McCormack—were local, but with résumés that diverged from the core constituency. Fifth Floor concerts are all about expanding a web of colleagues. That collegiality extends to the concerts, which aim for a casual atmosphere—the black-box ambience of Somerville’s Davis Square Theater for this concert, with some pre-concert chit-chat, the possibility of in-concert drinking, post-concert cookies, and a DJ.

Weber’s Chanting Atmospheres, an exercise in loops and layering, featured Arnold, dispatching vocal effects into the microphone (breath sounds, clicks, whistling, vocal percussion, and singing) which were then broadcast back, repeated and multi-tracked into a foundation for the next round of live-produced, digitally-reiterated sounds. An opening section of all white noise and unvoiced consonants led into a series of clustered drones; a series of swooping glissandi—laminated into to a nice, Penderecki-homage roar—led back to the drones; and then the whole thing was rounded off with a more delicate stacking of open fifths and hollow overtones. Chanting Atmospheres did, however, trigger one of my own (admittedly irrational) pet peeves about electroacoustic-plus-live-performers music, the way a lot of it circumscribes the performer’s range in order to better suit the electronic possibilities—to write for someone like Tony Arnold and not have her do more flat-out singing felt like a bit of a missed opportunity. But those ramjet glissandi warmed my in-your-face-modernist heart, and the ending section was particularly lovely.

The muse for Greene’s contribution, Juicy (subtitled “Spectral Studies for a Citrus Juicer”) was the whimsical, mass-produced Juicy Salif, a standing juicer designed by Philippe Starck for the Alessi company in the 1980s. (The Juicy Salif’s unusual shape was supposedly inspired by a squid, but it looks more like an enlarged chrome teardrop resting on a spindly, space-age tripod.) Greene used a host of other household objects to ring the juicer like a bell, subjected the results to some SPEAR-powered spectral analysis, then assembled the waveforms into a grand, gradually-building slow-motion clang of overtones. Having generated that shimmering multitude, Greene then dropped everything down to a fat, low buzz appropriate to the juicer’s resemblance to a Doctor Who prop. (Seriously: compare and contrast.) Like Chanting Atmospheres, Juicy had the feel of an elaborate sketch, but the simple formal unfolding (and—let’s be honest—the visual lark of a spotlit, foot-high juicer holding the stage) created an estimable divertimento.

Not all the music stayed within a synthesized hothouse; Jackson’s EIMI Два (“I am” [Greek] “two” [Russian]) ventured out of doors, drawing on ambient recordings Jackson made during a trip to Russia. (The title references one of e. e. cummings’s oddest books; EIMI is a fractured, dream-like account of a disillusioning trip to the Soviet Union in 1931.) The piece’s use of documentary sound was more mashup than musique concrète, the sources—broadcasts, conversations, an opera singer, an orchestra—were often easily identifiable, and not so much recontextualized as artfully rearranged (singer and orchestra kept bumping into each other at various angles), an entire journey converted into the discrete jumble of an envelope of snapshots.

Timothy McCormack’s Interfacing with the Surface and Daniel R. Dehaan’s Objects in This Mirror were, as the composers admitted in a bit of pre-concert banter, a yin-and-yang pair. Interfacing with the Surface was a quadruple-forte, fun flood of maximalism: hornist Sarah Botham and cellist Benjamin Schwartz working hard as McCormack (currently a PhD candidate at Harvard, a department that has definitely gotten louder in the past few years) manhandled a MIDI keyboard loaded up with what seemed to be all manner of industrial samples—revving engines, jackhammers, car horns. The effect was that of a catastrophically-malfunctioning chip-tune version of An American in Paris, urban energy compacted into an impenetrable surface; even McCormack’s apology for a botched ending felt as much like an extension of the aural critique of the modern condition as anything.

In Objects in This Mirror, a purely electronic work, Dehaan peeled away where McCormack piled on. A shimmering cluster was first deconstructed into audio artifacts: the crackle of overmodulation, the diffracted, stuttering chime of intersecting oscillators isolated and extracted. Then the cluster was divided and recombined into a slow, lush, Eno-like progression. To call something “tasteful” might seem like damning with faint praise, but the piece’s sure-footedness was impressive—with Dehaan tweaking away at a mixing board, the durations, balances, and timbres always felt like just the right choice. (If you’re going to indulge in circling, melancholy pop harmonies, you could do a lot worse than a repeated vi to V7/V to IV.)

The final work of the evening was Vistein’s; Apropos set a text by Rabelais, referencing an old myth that words spoken in winter would freeze, only to thaw the following spring. Vistein’s background has a strong conceptual streak—installations alongside performances, an MFA instead of an MM—but Apropos was, perhaps, the most musically straightforward piece of the evening: Arnold singing the text in longer, blooming phrases, her voice processed into a sonic background that unfolded an almost traditional narrative of illustrative effects.

Despite the congruence in electronic means, the program was distinguished mainly by a lack of any other connecting thread. If anything, it confirmed that style is not much of a banner to rally behind anymore (even if old dichotomies continue to stalk the new music world like some sort of rare, protected species of zombie). The only possible theme I could sense was one of simulation: all the pieces might be heard as using very up-to-date technology to produce sounds that, within the comparatively brief history of electronic music, could be considered somewhat retro: Jackson’s cut-up field recordings, Weber’s loops, Greene’s and Dehann’s oscillator-and-pad soundscapes, McCormack’s riot of sampling. Even Vistein’s piece could, perhaps, plausibly be realized by a chamber group with enough percussion and extended techniques at their disposal.

There were hints of other speculative generalizations: that we are in a musical era of consolidation rather than innovation, maybe, or that processing power has allowed more of a convergence of the aesthetic of electronic and conventional music than was possible in the days of more uncooperative equipment. But, really, the concert was too small a sample size to make any sort of larger statement; and larger statements didn’t seem to be the point, anyway. The Fifth Floor Collective is after something both more modest and grander: community, collaboration, camaraderie.

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One thought on “New England’s Prospect: Fellow Travelers

  1. Valerio Velardo

    Great article and great idea. Perhaps composers collectives are the right answer to the contemporary classical music inertia that musicians have to face everyday. A group of composers that share similar ideas have more opportunity to spread their music if they organize together, rather than workin on their own. Could this be a kind of musical revolution within the classical music domain?

    Reply

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