Success Yanked from the Jaws....
by John W. Lambert
This year's NC Computer Music Festival, the second such event at NCSU, suffered more than its fair share of mishaps in the 11th hour but came off more or less as advertised, thanks to herculean work by principal guest artist Beth Griffith and sheer determination on the part of host and director (and Arts Now Series coordinator) Rodney Waschka II. On the day of the first program, soprano Amy Jarman, who hasn't missed a professional engagement in a decade, was too ill to board a plane to Raleigh; she was to have sung Stan Link's remarkable and complex three-part "Groundswell" (2002), with recorded computer music, and if that weren't enough of a dilemma for the presenters, Mark Jarman, her husband, was to have narrated three of his poems that form the work's spine, but he was obliged to stay home with her. Into the breech stepped Griffith, in town to perform several other works (including three world premieres), and Waschka, who might otherwise have been fretting about his own compositions and performances; wonder of wonders, they learned "Groundswell" on less than 12 hours' notice and delivered it with astonishing commitment and flair. The piece is a winner, and it's different, too, from many exercises in computer music, in that it involves live artists and is a substantial composition, lasting 20 minutes in performance. Link, of Vanderbilt, has more than paid his dues in conventional and film music, and "Groundswell," which contains many sounds that could originate only via computers, works in ways that mainstream concertgoers would surely appreciate. The lingering impression of the piece, which contains slow-moving waves of sound and ethereal singing, is that it resembles Gorecki's wildly popular "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," but to compare it to that vocal-orchestral score may do Link's technological and musical achievements a bit of a disservice.
This work and several others, given in Stewart Theatre on March 15, during the first of two gala concerts, is based on texts as opposed to pure sound, generated, sampled, manipulated, or otherwise, but the program was skillfully arranged to provide considerable variety. Brad Garton, of Columbia University, provided welcome relief after the darkness (literal and figurative) of the opening number; his witty introduction and down-home realization of "Fog" (2003), a take-off - or perhaps a send-up - on Irish folk ballads. His delivery suggested Tom Lehrer's much earlier Irish parody without its gore; and portions of his performance reminded one of a sort of Guinness-crazed cross between Tom Waits and the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz. The interactive score, on a laptop, reflected the composer's skill in generating and modifying sounds that suggested, alternately, Uilleann pipes and those little old pump organs aspiring middle-class folks used to keep in their parlors.
From the University of Richmond's Benjamin Broening came the impressive "(after)" (2002), a pair of computer-generated retrospective impressions "after" the styles of Dowland and Byrd, played without pause. These contained snatches of possibly recognizable keyboard and choral music from the near-contemporary English composers, and the two-section score proved strangely moving and consistently engaging.
Garton's "Good News," built on text from NCSU-based John Kessel's Good News from Outer Space (not much of which was recognizable or comprehensible), brought Griffith back for her second appearance of the evening. I'm not sure if the sounds produced by the soloist were captured and modified in real time or if the "accompaniment" that emanated from the eight loudspeakers, arrayed around the house, was pre-recorded, but the piece proved powerful, either way, as it built from single, minor noises into a rich tapestry of layered sound. The intrusion of other voices from the sound track at one point was a bit of a jolt, perhaps because it was so unexpected. Nonetheless, this piece, like several others presented on this occasion, would definitely merit a second (or third) hearing.
Garton's third offering, "Atmen" (2000), is pure computer music, and it served as an interlude. Its "voices" (yes, the mix of words and music continued) suggested sounds that might issue from one of Dante's celebrated circles, enhanced from time to time by distant bells, as if the circle dwellers were being tormented by hints of another, far-removed place.
This led to Broening's striking "Summer is Late" (2003-4), the evening's second world premiere and Griffith's last appearance in this first program. Its poem is "Touch Me," by Stanley Kunitz, and the words recur as Leitmotiven here and there. As performed by the guest artist, it proved to be a truly touching (no pun intended) work that evoked powerful moods and reflections among its hearers. The ambience of the hall helped here and elsewhere, of course - the auditorium was for the most part shrouded in darkness (making reference to the program notes impossible except during the breaks), and the only illumination came from emergency exit signs, the massive mid-room workstation, staffed by the composers, and dim lights on the performer's music stands.
The show ended with one of Waschka's lighter pieces, "A Short Letter from a Small Place" (1987), far and away (please note) the oldest work on the program. Based on two letters from Mike Gyra, it's a tour de force for the narrator (Waschka), with recorded computer music that adds to the mayhem and fun. It brought this first program in the second annual festival to an amusing close - this guy has a future on morning-show radio if the composing business ever gets tight - and sent the crowd off is a happy mood.
The only significant casualty of the previous day's changes in artists was the loss of a scheduled late-morning poetry reading by Mark Jarman. Otherwise, this remarkable festival continued with a fascinating afternoon composers' roundtable, involving Stan Link, Brad Garton, and Benjamin Broening, who turned out to be just plain folks, more or less, despite the stereotypical impression that music is written - still, maybe - by Dead White Males from Europe. For openers, these guys are all Americans, living and working here, and they're definitely not dead, so their images are not likely to turn up on little plastic composer busts some of us used to get at various teacher-arranged contests.... But they're making music - literally - at a time when "music" (good, bad, and indifferent) is ubiquitous, readily available, and often marketed as a commercial "product." During the course of the discussions, which covered a surprisingly wide range of topics, listeners had the opportunity to delve into the "how" of their work, and the results were - to this attendee, at least - revealing. Clearly, the music being discussed - and given during the festival - cannot be cooked up in a matter of minutes by someone who just came in off the street.
The evening concert was in the same format as the previous one and as cleverly varied, and again the theme was words and music together. To begin, poet John Balaban, NCSU's Poet-in-Residence (how's that for an ag & engineering school?) read "Hissarlik," which deals, loosely, with Heinrich Schliemann's search for Troy. The poem was dramatically "set" by Link, whose sounds included children and older people, noises that may have been meant to depict digging down through the "dust of ... cities," and layering that suggested the distinct strata of bygone civilizations that were uncovered during excavation. Link's "Hissarlik" (2004) received its world premiere, and the performance provided a rare opportunity to see and hear both creators - poet and composer - at the same time and in the same place.
Broening returned with two more offerings that served, on this occasion, as the "interludes" between the compositions that involved words and music. The first was "Arioso/Doubles" (2002), played by Christopher Grymes, the distinguished clarinetist of ECU, who will repeat the work on March 25 during the NewMusic@ECU Festival (a major event for new music that is even bigger than NCSU's - see our Eastern calendar for details). Based on the Raleigh performance, it would be worth a trip to Greenville. This is computer music plus, and there's much to be said for mixing "electronics" (for want of a better word) with a living, breathing player or singer.
"Nocturne/Doubles" (2001), Broening's other work, involved computer music and piano, played by the composer himself. It was somewhat more percussive than "Arioso..." but otherwise stylistically similar in that it was a mood-evoker of considerable proportions.
These bracketed a performance by Garton that underscored his radical approach to his work: "My Music Book" is an interactive document to be read on a 'puter that provides sounds tailored to the text as you go. On the surface, that sounds pretty simple - sort of like those safari movies of long ago that had the devices that shook the floor when the elephants walked across the screen - and that came with "fragrances" sprayed into the theatre, too. But people don't all read at the same speed...., so this was really something to witness and hear, too.
The grand finale was the second opera by Rodney Waschka II that this writer has heard. A recording of the first is reviewed in our CD section, and it might be worth a look because I talk there about the whole "is it an opera?" question. Those comments apply to "Sappho's Breath" (2000-2), which was vividly brought to life by soprano Beth Griffith, who has to be one of the top new music singers in the business today. The opera - for want of a better word... - is in a dozen scenes, including an Overture, and it was dramatically realized with minimal props, scattered about the stage. Its poems are from the legendary Greek writer herself, translated by Mary Barnard. This is opera comique vice grand opera in the sense that there's narration between the arias, of which there are six. Each is different and distinct, and all were given with impressive characterization, musicality, and technical savvy, and projected with crystal clarity, too, by the amazing vocalist. The sounds ranged from things you think you have heard before - Harry Partch's homemade instruments came to mind more than once - to things you've never heard before and maybe won't again. The "computer music on recorded media" accompanied, enhanced, and was capped by all that singing, and the work emerged before our eyes and ears as a brilliantly unified entity. Operas tend to be long. This one lasts a little over half an hour. Like Strauss' short but intense Elektra , it is enough, and its impact lingered long into the night.