Ask the average citizen about the best way to hear new electronic music, and the answer (death is not an option) is likely to be something along the lines of "As quickly and painlessly as possible." The 60x60 series — concert-style listening events showcasing 60 contemporary electronic music compositions, each no longer than 60 seconds in duration, played in succession over one hour — just might change that. The tantalizing audio collage "60x60 (2007/International Mix)" appeared at North Carolina State University through the school's Arts Now series.
Composer and electronic music impresario Robert Voisey devised the 60x60 concept so large numbers of composers could bring their work to audiences in a portable, palatable, and decidedly unconventional format. Since the series' inception in 2003, Vox Novus — Voisey's organization dedicated to the promotion of contemporary composers and their work — has solicited 60x60 submissions by composers at all professional levels worldwide and presented its hour-long recordings at concerts in cities from Brooklyn to Bucharest. There have been regional compilations, like the Pacific Rim and Midwest series; collaborations with video artists; and 60x60 compilations released on CD.
This digitized, compartmentalized, sound-bite format is a tantalizing new way to experience widely varied and eclectic electronic music. And 60x60's longevity and international acclaim show that Vox Novus' innovative strategy to attract audiences and encourage composers has actually worked — something that other areas of Western classical haven't been able to accomplish on such a broad and populist scale.
Pieces included in 2007's "International Mix" packed as much nuance as any other worthwhile composition, but as listeners are meant to experience each over sixty seconds, broad strokes, verbal hooks, environmental clues, and unfamiliar sounds and textures stood out. I sketched brief impressions of what I heard as each minute's work unfolded.
Computer music composer and NCSU instructor Rodney Waschka II served as emcee, introducing the series' concept and posting numbers to help the audience match each piece to its title and program notes. His "Reminded of Dickens" (synth clicks, big swaths of tense, undulating dissonance) was also featured in the mix.
Some pieces, like Lithuanian Gintas Kraptavicius' "Godot in hurry" (synth-static hits in backbeat, static crackle, [crescendo]), began as sonic particles made by synthesizers or chopped up and scattered from a preexisting source, coalescing and building into apocalyptic waves or shrieking layers of feedback. Others began with found recordings of music, gradually devolving into choppy, broken record babble or churning distortion of the original material; Blas Payri's "Fluffy study with bel canto" (dizzy hits, choppy opera make rhythmic piece) distorted crackly, Victrola-style phrases of two different arias into a jerky, disorienting evil twin of the original.
Some pieces consisted of dismembered news clips, poetic recitations, or other found nonmusical sounds, like Sabrina Pena Young's "CYBERNATION" (robotified babbles - like Radiohead thing kinda - news clips?) or "what newspaper whispered to me this morning" (cut-up voice w/ whispers, static clicks, "I love you," etc.), which Taiwanese composer Meng-Chia Lin created by feeding a brief poem to her MacBook's text-reading software and manipulating the product. The source audio for Tim Reed's halting, grunting "He Changed Into His Brown Trousers" (human? voice clucking? tonal grinding metered noise, slam, muted sounds) featured, according to the program notes, "sounds which emanated from Russel Brown in the Spring of 2007." Still others were tongue-in-cheek but no less intriguing: Composer, painter, and poet Drake Mabry' used the sonic byproduct of the editing process — removing audience coughs from a live recording — to create "Public Concert" (coughs, sounds like air in big room, more coughs).
Two of the evening's most memorable pieces drew from politically charged text as source material. San Francisco composer Jesse Clark dismantled a sound clip of the title phrase "Go F*ck Yourself, Mr. Cheney" (...Cheney in Katrina news description clip...beeped in clip, cut to make melody/beat) to create a moment of catchy, politically charged electro-pop. Benjamin Boone used recitations of quotes by Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and Franklin on sixtieth-minute closer "Founding Fathers" (floaty osc[illation]).
Of course, not every piece boasted such intriguing sounds or unfurled as meticulously as some of the recording's highlights. And an in-person, communal listen-in of a 60x60 compilation is ideal — the anticipation and excitement is best experienced in person. But this concept, combined with the fascinating variety and breadth of its compositions, is well worth an hour alone at home with a pair of headphones.