CMJ review, concert at Stanford, 7/23/98

On July 23, 1998, I attended the annual outdoor digital music concert at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA)  at Stanford University. This is a longstanding tradition at Stanford;  there have been annual outdoor concerts ever since the Center started in the 1970's.  I have attended these concerts very irregularly over the years, and it was interesting to see how little has changed in all that time.  The unique and magical affect of lying on the grass, looking up at the night sky and being surrounded by high-quality spatialized sound is as powerful as ever.  Unfortunately, another aspect of these concerts has also stayed the same, as if frozen in time: most of the pieces on the program adhere to a narrowly defined and unimaginative CCRMA style which has evolved amazingly little over the years. 

The first piece, distressingly, set the tone. Two Studies after Sibelius, by Oded Ben-Tal consisted of algorithmic transformations of three short fragments from the solo cadenza of Sibelius' Violin Concerto.  The transformations used ran the gamut of classical computer music clichés, all presented in an oscillating dialectic of the smooth and spikey. Isolated gestures followed one after the other without much sense of presence or progression:  and, as has happened so many times before, metallic bell-like tones morphed into chattering swooshes,  and recognizable samples broke up into percolating fields of synthetic pluckings.  The violin peeked out from time to time,  affording brief moments of sonic richness. 

iICEsCcRrEeAaMm  by Fernando Lopez-Lezcano, also a tape piece,  explored similar territory, but with more fire and imagination.   In this piece it was the screams of children which were subjected to a computer sound process, in this case "grani," a granular synthesis instrument developed by the composer.  The title contains the pun "I scream" and "ice cream," which the composer notes was the reward the children got after their studio screaming session. While the overall form of the piece adhered to the convention of presenting a series of timbral gestures,  most with smooth attack-decay envelopes, the sounds themselves were more disturbing and unusual than the norm.  There were the metallic FM-like overlays we've come to expect in this music, but in this case they were rich and complex, some as complex and sonorant as the occasional airplanes passing overhead; throaty engine sounds, squealing brakes, and the twitterings of small animals all came to mind for this listener. The overuse of very synthetic sounding digital reverb marred the experience somewhat in the outdoor context, but may have worked better in a more conventional listening environment.

Regulate Six , by Charles Nichols was another granular synthesis study, also processing human voices.  According to the composer's notes: 

Samples are taken from recordings of male and female voices singing a line from a children's book and are reassembled to create a new waveform, whose spectrum is based on the selected vowel or consonant content of each word. Pitches are then grouped according to timbral types and sweep across or converge at points on the stereo field.
The apparently complex procedure used unfortunately didn't make for a very rich effect. The piece consisted of eight very static, and nearly identical sections which sounded like an "oohing" chorus of singers, entering one by one to build a series of chords. Artifacts of the granular process used modified the timbre in a somewhat interesting way, giving it a humming or beehive like quality. Later sections extended the range outside of normal human vocal range, occasionally pushing out into a gritty sandpapery texture. Overall the piece seemed somewhat overlong and repetitive, like a series of timbral studies for some as yet unrealized work.

The most interesting recorded piece of the night was Bobby Lombardi's Sermon on the Mount. Like the previous two pieces, it consisted of processed human voice, in this case the voice of  the late William Burroughs reading his own work (although at no point in the piece was I able to understand a word, or indeed even distinguish that a human voice was involved.)  It seemed to partake of a different musical and timbral universe than these other works entirely,  letting in a broader range of edgy textures and rhythmic phenomena. The piece seemed slightly out of control, edging into distortion and containing artifacts of electronic connection and disconnection, sounds like shuffling paper, toy noisemakers, guitar feedback, all in an acoustic space whose raw presence and minimal use of reverb let it sit well in the outdoor concert space. The piece went through a series of astounding transformations, and ended abruptly and unexpectedly. I could have listened to much more in that vein.

Two pieces on the night's program were for live performers and electronics. InEum-Yang,  CCRMA student Jun Kim combined computer processed violin sounds, live Disklavier midi piano and electric cello (played by Chris Chafe) in a live composition directed and controlled by radio baton.  Liberal use was made of spatialization, with Penderecki-esque virtual orchestras of screaming strings swirling around us, along with very bright and scratchy electric cello figures from Chafe (seated in view on the balcony above) and virtual forearm clusters from the Disklavier, (out of view, but, we were assured, playing live as well). The radio baton was put to good use orchestrating and controlling these elements.

The final scheduled piece on the program was the dramaticSkinheads, for electronics and percussion by Juan Pampin. Anticipation for this piece had built up over the evening. The setting was dominated by the three large percussion batteries distributed left, right and center, waiting throughout the evening to be used, like the gun over the mantel in a dramatic thriller. Pampin had prepared the electronic component of the piece by performing spectral analysis and transformation of percussion instrument resonances, using his own custom spectral modeling software. These analyses were then used to control sound processing and resynthesis using Common Lisp Music, developed at CCRMA by Bill Schottstaedt. 

The performers -- Vanessa Tomlinson, Don R. Baker and Randal Leistikow, followed a score and traded cues producing mostly continuous, noisy sounds -- largely cymbal and snare drum rolls, in which they were occasionally joined by similar electronic textures. Sounds were passed on from player to player with great verve and skill, providing a physical analog to the spatialized movement of the electronic sounds; the overall effect was one of a compelling and coherent timbral universe, in which sounds, electronic and percussive, blended and separated as if they were all elements of one physical process.

An unexpected and welcome addition to the program was the 1972 John Chowning composition Terranus.  This piece really represented the beginnings of the timbral CCRMA style, and its innovative atmosphere was still fresh after more than 25 years. Subsequent developments have changed the way we're able to hear this work -- I couldn't help hearing a DX7 in it -- but the excitement over the new timbral possibilities of the era is still discernable in the by now familiar careful exposition of timbres.

At that time, computers really were revealing a whole new sonic world, and a whole new way of listening that was unprecedented.  The timbral universe of digital sound, however,  is no longer that mysterious; as listeners we now know this terrain. No merely timbral innovation is able to make such a difference today, and a style consisting of  laboriously serving up a series of isolated timbral gestures no longer has the revolutionary impact it had in 1972.  Herein lies the problem with most of the tape music on this night's program.