New England’s Prospect: Naming Rights

A "green card" programming reference sheet for the IBM 360 series mainframe computer. (Via.)

A “green card” programming reference sheet for the IBM 360 series mainframe computer. (Via.)

Founded in 1996, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project is, nowadays, probably the most powerful new-music brand in Boston. Beyond the four orchestra concerts they mount every season, there’s the record label, the collaborations, and the Club Concerts—BMOP was one of the first organizations in Boston to present new music in nightclub settings. After some concerts in Club Café’s less-than-amenable Napoleon Room, on March 12, BMOP was once again in the larger Moonshine Room—a much better, though still not perfect space. (Halfway through the concert, Trivia Night started up in the main bar, with enough volume that I had to compel my ADHD brain to stop answering the questions.) If the room’s branding is decorative—really, far more classical-music venues should have a sparkly floor—the music’s was technological. “Electroacoustic/Acousmatic,” curated by composer Derek Hurst, featured some electronic manipulation in every piece. It also showed that those categories—those brands—are not as fixed as they perhaps once were.

I always had some ambivalence about the term acousmatic—on the one hand, it seemed like a slightly fussy and not-necessarily-necessary subcategory, on the other hand, it seemed like the sort of word Raymond Scott might have come up with on a good day, which is a bonus. This program, though, raised the question of whether, from a practical, listening standpoint, the category even exists. It used to refer almost exclusively to musique concrete; then it became any concert experience where the sound was all mediated through a loudspeaker. Rick Snow’s 2010 Labyrinth, the one specifically acousmatic work on the program, certainly demonstrated how the latter has trumped the former. Labyrinth takes as its source material a metronome-like clicking, then speeds it up and slows it down and runs it through filters and envelopes to create a long, loosely-knotted weave of ebbing and flowing clatter—a chorus of Aristophanic frogs, maybe, bre-ke-ke-kexing away. But the manipulation is so constant and digitally frictionless that any dividing line between musique concrete‘s found-sound ethos and pure electronic synthesis seemed practically nominal.

What was interesting was how the more obvious dividing line—between whether or not the work incorporated a live-performer component or not—has also been significantly blurred. Three of the program’s works used live performance as ignition for computerized sounds and distortions. In Joshua Fineberg’s The Texture of Time, it was Sarah Brady’s flute doing the prompting, her extended techniques amplified, via software, into extended-extended techniques, the whole swirled into hard-edged shadows, a drawn-out clang. Elainie Lillios’s Among Fireflies also featured Brady, this time on alto flute, and also was full of extended techniques—breath and key-clicks turning into a flitting swarm, tremolos mutated into a propeller’s flutter. Hurst’s Libretto used bass clarinet—played by Rane Moore—but, again, pushed the instrument into unorthodox sounds: long, microtonal wavers, accenting blowing and overblowing, all electronically layered into great, reedy growls.

All three pieces were accomplished and entertaining in their own way. But they also all took a similar approach to their acoustic end: the instrumental language seemed designed completely around what would trigger interesting electronic effects. Flute and clarinet were shorn of a lot of their conventional expressivity, and instead optimized as input devices for digital expressivity. And the thing is, I’m not sure that any of the pieces would have been any less compelling if the live portion had simply been recorded as well. The mediation of the live sound was thorough enough that, if you closed your eyes, the categorical line between Snow’s acousmatic music and the others’ electroacoustic music was a pretty fine one indeed.

The musical results were still engagingly musical, but it does indicate a strange position that electroacoustic music is in right now, the technology always seeming to be just ahead of the aesthetic. (On this occasion, just ahead of the practitioners, too—minor technical glitches seemed to abound.) None of those electroacoustic pieces really were leveraging the experience of live performance in such a way that made live performance a necessary condition, as it were.

The two other works on the program, though, hinged on that live energy. Rudolf Rojahn’s Ghosts of Her (a premiere, commissioned and played by Moore, again on bass clarinet, and violinist Gabriela Diaz) limited its electronics to a heavy blanket of reverb, spread over halting, lurching, needle-sharp deconstructions of 50s pop: “Earth Angel” (very well-disguised) and “Sea of Love” (more recognizable). The instruments took the lead; the filtering was just enough to produce a sonic version of memory’s conflicting haze, both comfortingly vague and unsettlingly disintegrated.

The brightest highlight was John Melby’s 1979 Concerto for Violin and Computer, an utterly fantastic piece. (It was a product of the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, one of the most solid electronic-music brands of the era.) The craft is formidable; the violin writing is superb, one of the best examples of 1970s neo-Romantic/late-modernist atonal lyricism I’ve ever heard, every phrase beautifully shaped. The computerized sounds—a souvenir of the IBM 360/75 computer—are a far cry from the seamlessness and depth of current electroacoustic tools (there’s a real metallic, science-fiction BBC Radiophonic Workshop vibe to everything), but it’s turned to formal advantage, using the discrepancy in naturalism to channel venerable concerto-as-contest power. Given the comparative recalcitrance of his electronic materials, Melby clearly thought hard about what exactly those materials should be, what they should do, and how they should interact—or not interact—with the violin. As a result, the Concerto is one of the few electronic pieces I’ve heard in recent years where I actually stopped paying attention to the technology.

Diaz was a big part of that, giving an absolutely assured reading. Brady and Moore, too, made it all seem easy and fluent. But BMOP, in whatever guise, always seems to present excellent players in excellent performances, never less than solid, frequently dazzling. Good brands know the value of maintaining quality.

***

One of the barometers of new-music status in Boston—anywhere, really, but especially here—is whether a group’s concerts feel as much like networking events as performances. BMOP is in that strata; the Boston Composers’ Coalition is, as of yet, not. The crowd at their March 5 concert at MIT’s Killian Hall was much more family and friends (myself—full disclosure—included). There’s a network there—like many of the smaller new-music groups in town, the primary connections are academic: Boston University degrees and Boston University Tanglewood Institute experience are a frequent common denominator.

And it’s not as if networking isn’t happening; it’s just mostly happening on stage. The BCC’s hook is that all the music is written especially for each concert. The group partners with a performer, or an ensemble, and then all the composers write a short piece specifically for that instrumentation. It’s a neat little symbiosis—performers need gigs, composers need performers—and the all-premiere aspect of the resulting concert creates a kind of tiny, temporary pop-up new-music community.

The one-size-fits-all instrumentation—this concert featured flutist Orlando Cela, violinist Annegret Klaua, and harpist Franziska Huhn, all members of the relatively new Ensemble 451—is balanced by the fact that the composers themselves are all over the stylistic map. Ramon Castillo’s Artifice (for harp solo, the only piece not to use the full trio) would have been at home on BMOP’s electroacoustic bill, with isolated sounds and effects (près de la table thunks, the buzzing rattle of string against string) digitally manipulated into and evocation of old-school tape and delay effects. Imagined triggers of road rage inspired Andrew Smith’s Instigator II, which used amplification and reverb to programmatic effect—over escalating harp runs, the other two instruments’ wisps of key clicks and sul ponticello turned aggressive, small things made suddenly large. (Jeremy Van Buskirk, another BCC composer who works primarily with electronics, didn’t have a piece on the program. I reviewed some other music of his a couple years ago.)

Heather Gilligan’s Mourning Dew had a kind of stylistic respiration: flowing impressionism pared down to pentatonic counterpoint, then gradually enriched again. The comfort of common-practice tonality also infused Brett Abigaña’s “Lullaby,” an unapologetically sweet piece with some intriguingly striking orchestration—lots of close-packed, high harp brocade, and an inverted hierarchy that often found the harp and violin harmonizing over the flute’s melody. Joy Blanchard, a student at BU Academy high school—the BCC also invite a pre-college student to write for each concert, which is all kinds of fun—contributed On a Breeze, which slipped from tableau to tableau via some gently foggy harmonies before finishing in a lovely, deft tangle of diatonic melody.

Justin Casinghino, the BCC’s director, went for stylistic homage in A Place I’ve Never Been, a rumination on the disturbance-in-the-force mood that resulted from the sale of Charles Ives’ house last year. The familiar plays were there: collage, quotation (an elegiac coda cheekily mixed “Yankee Doodle” with “Amazing Grace”), competing time-streams, cage-match standoffs between chromatic dissonance and 19th-century tonality. But, on the fine line between Ivesian and echt-Ives, A Place I’ve Never Been stayed on the side of the angels.

The program closed with PoChun Wang’s Yellow in Gray, which worked some stylized hints of Chinese instruments into fractious ostinati that coursed with chunky energy. Alone among the pieces, it ended big, which might be why it ended up as the finale. Indeed, a lot of passages among the concert’s works still felt like sketches, or experimental drafts. But the atmosphere makes that into a bit of a virtue—the constraints and the deadlines are part of the conceit, so the more notional moments feel just as generous. If brands are all about knowing what you’re getting, then the BCC’s mark might be those passing glimpses inside the workshop.

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