Contemporary Music Review

Duke Encounters Music on Really Original Instruments

February 24, 2006 - Durham, NC:

The latest concert in the Duke Music Department's series "Encounters: with the Music of Our Time" seemed to us at times an encounter with a time warp. The program was wholly devoted to the music of composer Mark Applebaum, who appeared in person, aided by Pulsoptional, an ensemble of local composers and performers. Applebaum, currently an assistant professor of composition and music theory at Stanford University, composes both electronic and acoustic music in the spirit of such avant-garde composers of the mid-twentieth century as John Cage, Morton Subotnik, George Crumb and others. Whether acoustic or electronic, Applebaum's program consisted primarily of sounds outside the canon of our traditional instruments and chromatic tone system – in other words, noise. His pièces de resistance are his sound-sculptures, "instruments that produce wonderful, bizarre sounds and are intended also as arresting works of visual art… mounted on an electro-acoustic soundboard." In order to make the most of this review and actually see the Sound Sculptures, explore Applebaum's web site [inactive 9/07].

Certainly, the most engaging feature of this concert was its humor. Looking like a throwback to the '60s with his Samsonian locks and earnest looking dark framed glasses, Applebaum is a master of irony, much of it directed at himself. He knows much of his stuff is outrageous – and he revels in it. A case in point, for example, his Pre-Composition for 8-channel tape. Scored for the voice of Applebaum's eight separate personae, emanating from eight speakers placed around the perimeter of Nelson Music Room, Pre-Composition represents the initial stages of creating one of his signature compositions – by committee – eight voices talking and not one of them listening. The audience was in stitches.

According to the composer, the multi-channel works constituted the inauguration of a multi channel system at Duke. Applebaum created for it Plundergraphic for the Pulsoptional ensemble, including Mark Faris, guitar; Todd Hershberger, bassoon; John Mayrose, gamba; and Lindroth, Mallonée and Carrie Shull, crackleboxes;* Applebaum, piano strings; and John Bower, diffusion artist. As all the performers played from "creatively" illustrated/notated music, Bower improvised at the soundboard in sending the acoustic sounds through six speakers.

One of two works on the program for actual notes and traditional musical medium, "Dr. Applebaum, why don't you use your powers for good and not for evil? They laughed at me at the university, ellipses," was a tour de force. Beginning as a solo piano piece, in which Applebaum – also a jazz pianist – showed his consummate skill at sparkling improvisation, gradually harnessing his random exploration of the keyboard into jazz idiom, expanding finally as a duet for tap dancer and piano, with the composer assuming both roles. (Only upon writing this review and checking the web site did we discover that this work was actually fully composed, only giving the illusion of improvisation – but he's still a phenomenal pianist.)

Pulsoptional's Scott Lindroth and Caroline Mallonée joined Applebaum in Meditation, for piano 6-hands, a "cozy" and quasi-improvisational work in which the three performers play from a selection of snippets and only at the top half of the keyboard. It all sounded much like Debussy mixed with a swizzle stick.

Applebaum is particularly interested in the process of extracting snippets from acoustic pieces and submitting them to electronic transformations, or remixing. Elegy ReMix and Sargasso ReMix are both from a larger project, The Janus ReMixes, in which Applebaum has taken extracts from his own more traditional acoustic compositions of his graduate student days. Originally works for carillon and for solo cello, the remix transformations involved electronically expanding the sound vocabulary of the two instruments. They were illuminating – if not arresting – examples of Applebaum's take on the sound possibilities. A third short work, Snagglepuss Re-Mix, a transformation of John Zorn's "Snagglepuss," illustrated the system as applied to Rock.

Applebaum called his first sound-sculpture "Mousetrap." with each of its descendents employing some form of the word "mouse" in its name. Applebaum sees himself as an heir to Harry Partch (1901-1974), inventor of 27 original instruments, some of them still used for atmospheric soundtracks. His sound-sculpture piece, Mouseketier Praxis, was an improvisation on a montage made up of a three mousetraps, service bell, copper toilet float, a socket wrench, assorted springs, bent brass rods of various lengths and shapes, bent threaded steel rods of various lengths, and much more, all affixed to or suspended over a triangular pad wired to a sound mixer and a Mac PowerBook, played with fingers, chopsticks, wire brushes and a violin bow (Check it out on Applebaum's web site; this is the best we can do for a description.)

Mouseketier Praxis was not, for us, the musical highlight of the evening. It was more like a demonstration, and in that respect, fascinating. It was like having open-source electronic music where the audience could see how Applebaum was striking and massaging the sculptural elements while simultaneously hearing the results of the various manipulations on the soundboard. But it went on too long, and Applebaum made frequent pauses as if trying to decide what permutation or combination of sounds he wanted to go for next.

In much of his music, Mark Applebaum has achieved a revival of the electronic music of the '60s. At that time, electronics were not nearly as sophisticated as they are now, and producing the new and limitless array of sounds was a true adventure for composers, engineers and listeners alike. During the over four decades since electronic music became the final frontier of "classical music" that most people believed and hoped would drown in its own sea of noise, the creative use of the computer has gone popular – you can get free software to produce the stuff with every new Mac. Our world is saturated with visual and auditory electronic imagery that makes Applebaum's work in this area seem somewhat anachronistic. But we can be persuaded otherwise as this was our first encounter with a prolific composer whose work is definitely worth exploring further.

* The CrackleBox is an electronic/acoustic device, resembling a mbira (thumb piano), invented by Michel Waisvisz in the 1970s. Pressing one of the six touch-pads while simultaneously sliding another finger along electronic strips produces a range of squeaks, squawks and shrieks.