Aspects of nature — plants, birds and snow — are focus of concert
Photo by Dan Addison
|Ted Coffey installing his work “Music for Lawn Games No. 3.”
By Jane Ford
A cactus drew applause from the audience of more than 200 when it took center stage in Old Cabell Auditorium on Nov. 3. Amplified with a contact microphone, the cactus was the main instrument in the composition “Degrees of Separation ‘Grandchild of Tree’ 10” by Paul Rudy, one of the guest participants in The Virginia Center for Computer Music’s Technosonics VI: Ecology and E-Music concert.
Rudy plucked and stroked the cactus needles, his hands moving over them like a potter shaping clay. Every touch or movement of the spines created sounds that were accompanied by taped electronic sounds. In creating the composition, Rudy, director of the Inter-media/Music Production and Computer Technology Center at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, was influenced by musician/artist John Cage’s “Child of Tree,” a 1975 improvisational piece.
In addition to the cactus composition, other works performed at this year’s ecology-themed Technosonics concert included a conversation between a cello and birds, a cello accompanying the sounds of snow and a composition auralizing the barely perceptible movements of a prayer plant.
The focus of the concert was to explore a combination of different kinds of media, with all compositions related to the world around us, said Judith Shatin, director of VCCM. With each annual Technosonics concert, “we want to expand people’s sense of the breadth of the music.
“Where composers used to imitate the sounds of the world [with instruments], we are bringing the actual [source of the] sounds into the concert hall. It creates a kind of organic connection and a theatricality to the music,” she said.
Shatin’s composition, “For the Birds,” for amplified cello and electronics, incorporates processed sounds of birds of the Yellowstone region and is also a play on Cage’s book of the same name. New York-based cellist and founder of the New Music Consort Madeline Shapiro performed the composition, which she commissioned. She played her instrument in various ways — sometimes running the bow over the strings, sometimes plucking the strings or using the body of the instrument percussively in a conversation with the processed sounds of song birds, sap suckers, birds of prey and water birds.
Matthew Burtner, associate director of VCCM, revisited his Alaskan heritage in his composition “Fragments from Cold.” Burtner recorded sounds of snow — footsteps, the swishing sound of skiing, a hand hitting snow and small avalanches of tumbling snow. He envisioned the composition also performed by Shapiro, with the cello as a skier and the whole piece as a metaphor for crossings — a skier crossing snow, the bow crossing the cello in sync with the breath of the cellist as an element of the choreographed sound. A microphone amplified Shapiro’s breath, which changed in time with the performance.
“It’s an intimate piece. We’re eavesdropping on her adventure across this imaginary world,” Burtner said.
The snow sounds were not processed, and in terms of technology, the piece was simple, Burtner said. “The processing occurs inside the listeners as they hear the sounds.”
The composition has political overtones for Burtner. He recently saw his small Alaskan village mentioned in a New York Times article in connection with proposed oil drilling. His reaction was personal and surprising. “I felt a little violated by that.”
During intermission concert goers were directed to the Lawn in front of Old Cabell where earlier in the day Ted Coffey, U.Va. assistant professor of composition, installed his work “Music for Lawn Games No. 3.” Using six parabolic dishes that act like spotlights projecting recorded sounds of nature, Coffey created a composition where each person’s position in space determines what is heard.
“I created a situation where people can share in the responsibility of the composition, of forming their own experience,” Coffey said. In a concert hall people try to select the perfect seat to hear the music, he added. In his composition, there’s not a bad seat in the house — everyone gets their own unique performance as they walk around exploring the sonic geometry and the physics of the project.
Back in the auditorium, another composition, “Among Vanished Aviators” by Paul Elwood, combined banjo, voice and two-channel playback, and incorporated air-to-ground transmissions. Recorded sounds were manipulated and combined with live banjo and voice. Elwood is an award-winning performer and composer in bluegrass, free improvisation and new chamber music. He is an assistant professor of music at Brevard College.
A prayer plant, which folds up at night and opens during the day in response to light, was the center of attention in the final musical offering of the evening. Plants grow and move so slowly that their movements are imperceptible to humans, but artist Douglas Irving Repetto’s goal was to share, through music, some sense of those movements, which occur in “plant time.” To do this, he used a camera and projector, eight people holding flashlights, and light sensors connected to a computer that played subtly changing ambient music.
The projected outline of the prayer plant was magnified onto a large screen as light shined on the plant, which made the small movements of the leaves just perceptible within an overlaid grid. The eight flashlight “musicians” held their “instruments” over their head, pointed down on one of the eight light sensors on the stage floor. The musicians watched different areas of the plant’s small movements and tried to imitate those movements with their flashlight. Their and the plant’s miniscule movements were registered by the light sensors, which subtly changed the computer’s ambient music soundtrack. In effect, the plant was conducting the musicians and the resulting sound of the piece, called “Molto Lento (with plant conductor).”
“I’m interested in the different time scales in which humans and the natural world act,” said Repetto, director of research at the Columbia University Computer Music Center.
At the end of his composition, the audience gave Repetto, the eight musicians and the prayer plant an ovation. Repetto and the musicians took a bow. But as far as anyone could see, the prayer plant did not.