Singing Along

After six months of workshopping five new experimental orchestral works through public readings, collaborative feedback, and laboratory performances, the American Composers Orchestra presented them in a formal concert entitled “coLABoratory: Playing It Unsafe” at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall this past Friday evening. It was one of the most exciting ACO concerts I have attended in quite some time, in large part because of the added layers of vulnerability in most of the pieces.

Raymond J. Lustig’s Latency Canons involved off-stage musicians performing alongside the ones on-stage via a Google Hangout, exploiting the aesthetic possibilities of the medium’s requisite lag-time to create an interactive and very 21st-century simulacrum of Frippertronics or Terry Riley’s Time Lag Accumulator. Two works required the orchestra to be completely synchronized with accompanying video that was projected above them. Composer/filmmaker Troy Herion’s New York: A City Symphony, which pitted his fast-paced and often hysterically funny film about contemporary NYC life against similarly quirky music. Du Yun’s Slow Portraits, created in collaboration with videographer David Michalek, was something of its polar opposite—both film and music were hyper-slow. Our own Dan Visconti’s Glitchscape featured vintage Speak & Spell and Speak & Read toys in the orchestration. Judith Sainte Croix’s Vision V included passages of audience participation, albeit relatively circumscribed.

Based on conversations during the post-concert party, all of the composers were extremely pleased with the results, and to judge from the ecstatic applause—particularly following Troy Herion’s New York Symphony, which concluded the concert—so was the audience. Would that there could be this much innovation and excitement in many more orchestral performances! So, should more orchestral performances feature video, some kind of technological enhancement, or opportunities for the audience to share in performing the music? I’m not sure on any of those fronts. Many of the video components I have seen in other performances over the years don’t really enhance the musical experience and sometimes they are an annoying distraction. Technology tends to age poorly, and if it’s really cutting edge, more often than not the performance venues as well as the musicians seem uncomfortable or are ill-equipped to deal with the logistics that such elements require.

As for audience participation… I must confess that I find few things more irritating than being asked to sing along during a performance that I did not anticipate being a part of. It is truly embarrassing, not quite as bad as that scene in the film About a Boy, but still! And I have no problem with pitch, can sight read well, and have sung most of my life in a variety of contexts. Still, there’s something about the joining in with a group that reeks of “Kumbaya.” Maybe that’s why I have such an aversion to “Happy Birthday”.

Luckily Sainte Croix’s Vision V did not quite use the audience that way. Rather than sing a specific melody line in unison, the audience was asked to quietly annunciate three specific sounds either once or over and over again in any rhythmic pattern they desired; the fourth and final time around, audience members were allowed to freely combine the previous three sounds. Rather than creating a garish non-unison (which is what usually happens when large groups of people are asked to sing something together when not completely prepared to do so), the result was akin to the micropolyphony that is a hallmark of Ligeti’s middle period. Of course it worked because it was somewhat unexpected. If every concert included something along these lines, it would get tired pretty quickly. But that’s why each concert should offer a different new idea. Undoubtedly some of those new ideas will be on display whenever ACO mounts its next coLABoratory project.

Rehearsing the Audience

Judith Sainte Croix rehearses the audience during one of the public performance “laboratories” in the months leading up to the April 5 concert at Zankel. (Photo courtesy American Composers Orchestra.)

6 thoughts on “Singing Along

  1. J. M. Gerraughty

    Personally, I love the idea of integrating technology into the orchestra. We often forget that, for centuries, the orchestra evolved with technological advances of it’s own, but somehow got frozen at the end of the Nineteenth Century. The orchestra as a whole is due for an update!

    Video as part of the concert experience poses important questions about the orchestra, one of which is whether or not the audience NEEDS a visual component in our day and age. Is the video an equal part, or is it a crutch to keep audiences with short attention spans engaged? Is orchestra + video more similar to absolute music or to opera? Does Herion’s use of the word “Symphony” imply that the relationship between the audio and the visual is tied to a cohesive formal/narrative design? The possibilities are fascinating!

    1. Troy Herion

      J.M. – I felt compelled to answer the question in your comment about the relationship between audio and visual elements in the City Symphony and whether or not they are formally/narratively cohesive. The answer is definitely yes: the premise of the work is that music has taken an audiovisual form. Sounds and images were created simultaneously and combined with the same compositional rigor one might use to orchestrate or harmonize. It is difficult to convey this concept without experiencing the actual work, and it doesn’t help that mainstream media has essentially created an expectation that music serves another master (usually visual). But I agree – the possibilities are fascinating. Take for example the idea that all sounds conjure some sort of phantom image, whether or not that image derives from the real world or is rather some abstract gesture. We speak of “melodic lines” as though notes travel through space. What sort of effect is experienced by the listener who hears a line while simultaneously seeing one that matches their phantom image? And what happens if we see a line of in a shape other than what we hear? Can this conjure a synesthetic polyphony? This is only the tip of the iceberg, since we can explore other relationships of timbre and color, size and volume, etc. etc. etc. But they are fascinating questions that I feel have firm footing in the study of music.

      1. J. M. Gerraughty

        Thanks for the insight, Troy! I REALLY wish I could have been there to see/hear the premiere. The lame part about Long Island is that it’s much harder to get off it than you would expect. Even though video is nowhere near my wheelhouse, I really like that it’s emergence on the scene as of late. How did you come to start making video for your pieces? Did you start as a composer and come to videography, or vice versa?

        1. Troy Herion

          Sorry that Long Island held you captive on Friday – it sounds like you would have really enjoyed the concert!

          The strange thing is that personally I’m quite picky about how video is used in musical contexts. I might even say that I prefer most music without any visual elements. But certain approaches really grab my attention and add to the musical experience. The conducting of Carlos Kleiber is one of my greatest inspirations for audiovisual work.

          My own path started with composition and only recently took a turn into interdisciplinary filmmaking. I prefer to think of my work as an extension of musical composition and I consistently apply musical instincts to nearly every part of the visual work-flow, from the photography to the editing, etc. But aesthetics aside, there are countless technical pitfalls to watch out for when working in a foreign discipline, and I continue to learn those lessons the hard way.

  2. swfreeman

    Judith ST Croix’s audience participation was subtle, playful, evocative, and–sadly–as an expression of female spirituality remains, even now, in the 21st Century, extremly rare.


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