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Opinion

The Repulsive CD (an alternate view)
by Joseph Pehrson

Program VII, Sunday, June 20th, Afternoon. 'Electronic Music.'Steven Sacco Aqua (Video) ~~ Vladimir Ussachevsky: Line Of Apogee ~~ John Melby: String Quartet #3 ~~ Joel Gressel: And Its Discontents ~~ Douglas Geers: Turnstile ~~ Hubert Howe: Harmonic Fantasy. Monica Bauchwitz,violin.

Electronic music has its own history, of course, and we wish that someone would design a program that treats the notion of development, as opposed to the tons of concerts which simply program some new electronic music and leave it at that. One question we might ask is whether electronic music has evolved via pure technological advance rather than changes in musical style. So when we hear a piece by Ussachevsky, who used many of the techniques of the school of musique concrete, we tend to think of the sounds in terms of being of the “old school.” Perhaps that's the wrong way to approach his work, as he was more than a pioneer; he was a master. Give the ACA credit for programming his music, as it has done before.

In Line of Apogee there is a warm, lyrical quality to the string of machine sounds, animal sounds, human voices and invented, sometimes micro-spliced sonics that only begins to wane on the ear near the end of the 9-minute opus. He has in fact given us a veritable encyclopedia of non-musical sounds and that would have rendered the composition substandard until we read the program notes and discover that the music was written to accompany a film.

Perhaps most in line historically with Ussachevsky on this program are the works of Gressel and Howe, who have one thing in common: they like to supply enough notes to negate the need for a reviewer. Perhaps they feel the level of technology and sonic theory involved calls for heavy elucidation. But each one's approach to composition is somewhat different. Gressel proceeds very much like a traditional composer; He develops a score on his “home computer” and then transfers it to a synthesized orchestral program. As the synthesis proceeds, he may hear something different happening to the sonics than first perceived. Only when he comes to a full grasp of the resulting content of the work will he put a title on it and feel it is truly finished.

Hubert Howe

Hubert Howe, on the other hand, works in a highly theoretical manner. He gave that little secret away when he reported “Harmonic Fantasy was sketched while I visited Singapore in October 2003, but was not produced until I returned home. It was synthesized using the csound program.”

Here again, we felt that the CD when turned up made for a richer experience than the “live” setting. There are definite emotions in Gressel's music, as the arch electronic sounds seem to comment on the passages carried by the “fatter” patches. On the other hand, Professor Howe's ultra harmonic, steady waves of sound creates a powerful experience and it is only after several listenings that one gets to absorb the rising and falling and undulating effect of this music.

Still in all, we found the work by John Melby to be the most rewarding of the five selections. It comes over as a haunting kaleidoscope of shifting sonics, produced by the integration of carefully placed electronic responses to the live music, strings being tested to the limits of their technical resources, using shifting meters, shifting scales, microtonality, double stops, sul ponticello, tremolo and pizzicato . Among the more interesting passages is one where a highly lyrical solo violin is counterpointed against the fearsome howling of non-pitched electronics and other instruments which appear as quiet and haunting. At over 18 minutes, the string quartet had to possess a lot of contour, as well as many interesting events that are never repeated.

Almost totally overwhelmed by this display was Mr. Geers' Turnstile . At a bit over four minutes, it could not match the weight of the other works, even if we can assess it as a “good” piece. The composer does not explain the title, but the suggestion that it was inspired by the musical waifs of the New York subways could easily fly. Mr. Geers, one assumes, wrote out an improvisatory-sounding, Gypsyish-like solo set against more modern turns in the electronics, which were controlled by him. The playing of Monica Bauschwitz was excellent.