CD Review:

The Virtuoso in The Computer Age - II
Centaur Records CD  CRC 2133

A recurrent problem facing those working with computer music is that of breathing life into the work-- after all, while computers are capable of amazing complexity, there is nothing inherently musical in all this complexity, and the composer is always left with the problem of somehow bringing life to the music.  This record, as well as its previous companion disc, chronicle some active computer-oriented composers' approaches to this problem.  These discs are focused on the particular situation of using computers somehow in live instrumental performance practice. In the various approaches taken by the composers represented, we hear samples of most of the current ways of dealing with this problem, some of course more successful than others.

    None of the pieces, thankfully, follow the clichéd mock-concerto performer and tape formula. Two of the pieces on the record are in the form of live performances with real-time computer generated accompaniment. One of these, Gareth Loy's Blood from a Stone,  is among the most interesting on the disk. The computer is given a modest accompaniment role here, never really taking on a personality or voice of its own, but serving mainly to thicken the line of the varied and expressive violin of János Négyesy. In this case the somewhat static and canned quality of the stock FM sounds actually works to advantage, placing the fine articulations of the violin line in a cool and clear setting. The other "computer accompanist" piece, Duo Improvisation  by Chris Chafe and Dexter Morrill can be thought of as a sort of cautionary tale about gilding the lily: the quite skillful and inventive playing of the composer/performers on trumpet and cello is merely obscured by the awkward MIDI-derived accompaniment. 

    Another way to bring life to computer music is to appropriate elements of some living tradition. At its best this can be quite powerful, at its worst it can descend to a sort of musical vampirism. Last Night   by Rodney Waschka II is a successful blending of computer composition techniques with the jazz tradition. The computer in this piece was only a compositional aid; the performance is on alto saxophone and piano.  Somehow a sort of "after midnight" feeling is successfully created, with the otherworldly aspect of computer composed phrases just making the mood cooler than cool. Two other pieces, however,  Neil Rolnick's The Persistence of the Clavé  and Jon Appleton's Homanaje a Milanés   are less successful.  Rolnick creates a groove by looping samples of  old Colombian cumbias  and adding synthesized percussion based on Afro-Cuban patterns, and Appleton fiddles with some samples of very moving singing by the Cuban songwriter Pable Milanés. Too much of the life of these pieces is derived from the musical vitality and integrity of the samples themselves, and they both leave one wanting to hear the original material unencumbered by its treatment.

    The remaining two pieces on the disc, by Larry Austin and Larry Polansky, are orchestral in scope or ambition. Larry Austin's Life Pulse Prelude, for percussion orchestra, is based on unfinished sketches and notes left by Charles Ives.  Twenty different instruments play in twenty different rhythmic cycles that come into phase every eight seconds, at which point a large gong is hit. The result is a real american "gamelan" piece. Austin's notes are worth quoting:

What I term "the Life Pulse Prelude  effect" is: Ives' "durational counterpoint" plus sound-mass/pulsation-mass/event-mass/rhythm-mass/melody-mass plus the phenomenological synthesis of mesmerizing melodic/rhythmic iterations and an incessant improvisatory catharsis! It works. 
The computer aspect of the piece is in the various performance systems that have been used to allow twenty players to play at twenty different tempi simultaneously.

   The final piece on the disc is Larry Polansky's V'Lemeshel (And to rule...), one of his series of pieces based on Hebrew cantillation. This piece is a multitrack recording of Ann LaBerge on flute.  A series of voices enter as the piece progresses, and they are all subjected to the same transformation, but with the timing of the transformation scaled so that they all end at the same time, and with composed emphases added where the melodic material of each voice lines up in some way.  Overall the movement of the piece is towards greater coherence at the end, and the lines have a certain meandering quality that makes the coherencies that arise in the course of the piece have a magical, almost prophetic quality.