A LITTLE BRAIN SURGERY: Sonic Festival

OCTOBER 14 – 22, VARIOUS VENUES

Lately, neuro- and computer scientists have given music lovers a lot to think about. We are reminded of what we intrinsically know by Daniel Levitin of McGill University, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, in an article in the New York Times: that music has an emotionally regulatory effect on the brain, and that brain surgeons listen to music while operating. Meanwhile, C. Claiborne Ray reports elsewhere in the Times that when content is uploaded to an electronic device, its electrons become excited, adding weight (per Einstein’s formula), albeit only an atogram (10–18 grams). Then there’s the ever-smiling, Wall Street Journal–parroting Harvard conservative Steven Pinker, blaming rock ’n’ roll music and drugs (he leaves out birth control, i.e., sex, the Journal’s third leg of liberal licentiousness, but dutifully includes g*dless communism) as influential instigators of violence and “decivilization in the 1960s” in his Better Angels of Our Nature.

eighth blackbird performing at the SONiC Festival at Miller Theater, Columbia University. Courtesy eighth blackbird and American Composers Orchestra.

From these experts, we are told that music is important to our neurological well-being; that musical stimulation energizes our brains; and that music can be atavistically “bad” for society. In this electrometric, hyper-analyzed world, contemporary composers might see themselves either more richly supplied with raw material than ever or, conversely, put upon to create “unanalyzable” (as John Ashbery famously described the intent of his poetry) sounds—that is, to escape clichéd categorization, to demonstrate unassailable innovation on principle. And, while innovation has its inherent merits and appeal, it also has its problems. Not all of it ages well, and some of it instantly fails. Then there’s the class of musical innovation that goes further, stimulating centers of the brain better left alone.

Which brings us to the SONiC Festival, featuring “over 100 composers [40 and under] from six continents” and 16 ensembles. SONiC (Sounds of a New Century) was performed at some of New York’s major musical venues—Carnegie Hall, Miller Theater at Columbia University, Americas Society, John Zorn’s the Stone, the Thalia Theater at Symphony Space, Joyce SoHo, the Kitchen, 92YTribeca, Roulette, the Winter Garden at World Financial Center, and Joe’s Pub.

Although participating composers and individual musicians are too numerous to list, SONiC’s ensembles were Alarm Will Sound, American Composers Orchestra, Argento Ensemble, Camerata Aberta, Dither Quartet, eighth blackbird, Either/Or, Ensemble Klang, Imani Winds, International Contemporary Ensemble, JACK Quartet, NOW Ensemble, PRISM Quartet, Talea Ensemble, the New York Virtuoso Singers, and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City—serious company. Among them, for example, Argento performed Georg Friedrich Haas’s sonically superlative “In Vain” at the New York Armory’s Tune-In Festival, and JACK performed Elliot Sharp’s brilliant “Occam’s Razor” at ISSUE Project Room. SONiC’s composers, musicians, and ensembles are the cream of the intellectual music circuit’s crop—the independent and academic innovators at a remove from commercial interest and interference. For this lot, success is no doubt measured in performances, prizes, peer accolades, and art-film soundtracks, regardless of posterity.

American Composers Orchestra. Courtesy RMK Photos.

SONiC’s first night at Carnegie Hall, a performance of the American Composers Orchestra, featured no less than five world premieres, including Alex Temple’s “Liebeslied” for female voice, five electronics, and chamber orchestra, and Wang Lu’s “Flowing Water Study II” for orchestra and video (by Daniel Iglesia). That emerging composers are recognizing and incorporating voice and video is hugely encouraging, given the emotive power of the human voice and the potential for interweaving visual imagery and music in pure art in an age when music is routinely used to disingenuously manipulate viewers of cinema and broadcast “content.”

SONiC’s second night featured a performance by eighth blackbird (decapitalization theirs) at the intimate, if architecturally eccentric, Miller Theater at Columbia. (The Miller has no depth, an unnecessarily hovering balcony, and a stage elevated to the point where the audience has a fine view of the performers’ feet; somehow, in spite of these bizarreries, the Miller’s acoustics are fine.) I had seen eighth blackbird perform Bach and Reich at Tune-In and thus had high expectations. The composers whose music eighth blackbird performed had something else in mind.

First up was Fabian Svensson’s New York City premiere “Two Sides,” a whimsy featuring Tim Munro on piccolo and flute and Matthew Duvall on marimba, in counterpoint with Michael J. Maccaferri on the impressively distinctive, floor-length bass clarinet, Nicholas Photinos on cello, and the effusive, colorful Lisa Kaplan on piano. The former called, while the latter playfully, if conventionally, replied, a cortically gratifying, anti-rhythmic half beat behind. “Two Sides” continued to complexify, ending with a humorous, crowd-pleasing piano-versus-piccolo ending. One was reminded of a recent Science Times story by Ritchie S. King about the neurological challenges of plain-tailed wren courtship, in which the female tests the male’s ability to improvise in an extemporaneous duet that sounds like a single song.

Composer Amy Beth Kirsten’s New York City premiere “Pirouette on a Moon Sliver” for solo flute, again featuring Munro, followed. In this piece of metaphorical labial and digital footwork, Munro literally talked into the flute, becoming a falsetto breathing bird. Ultimately, this strange example of musical sleight-of-breath and prestidigitation, which leveraged both the composer’s and the flautist’s understandings of the possibilities of the instrument, transported the listener into an otherworldly, dreamlike domain, a partition of the brain worth further exploration.

Matthew Duvall next played composer Caleb Burhans’s “Lullaby for Madeline” on marimba, playing two, then four-note harmonies. (Anyone listening to marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, or gamelan music knows, instinctively, that the human species is capable of irenic coexistence.) In “Lullaby,” Burhans utilized a minimal score with four descending notes that Duvall rendered in the aural equivalent of a sonic rainstick, a digitally processed sample, or the soothing resonance of Ben Franklin’s Glass Armonica.

Dan Visconti’s “Fractured Jams” for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano followed, as the evening dove into the chaos that would characterize the remaining pieces. The composition’s four movements—“Eleven,” “Jug Band Jamboree,” “Series Echoes (Feedback),” and “Kaleidoscope Rag”—were no doubt fun to play, but less so to watch. Of course, chaos is the cup of tea for some modern music listeners, and it may be a rite of passage mandatory in the scriptorial academy. “Fractured Jams” may also be a documentary, musical reflection of our atomizing times.

Kaplan and Duvall next performed Mayke Nas’s gimmicky, trivial “DiGiT #2” for piano four hands, in which 1984 meets pat-a-cake. In this nugation, the performers banged heads and slammed entire forearms on the keyboard. Unfortunately, it had none of the naughtiness or charm of John Cage’s “Suite for Toy Piano.” Regrettably, “DiGiT,” contrary to the audience’s enthusiastic reception, killed time, injuring, as Thoreau gravely intoned, eternity.

“DiGiT” affirmatively paled compared to what followed—the evening’s major offense, Timothy Andres’s “Crashing Through Fences” for piccolo, glockenspiel, and drums, a brain-damaging assault on listeners’ delicate hearing and sound-center processing apparati. This terroristic thought experiment in cognitive dissonance and shock would’ve been best left as such. As it was, its performance did more than simply produce headaches; it made more than one listener disoriented and distressed. Andres’s technique was simple: Juxtapose soft and subtle high-kHz sounds with unpredictably occurring percussions most reminiscent of random gunshots. In an era in which terror is no figment, one hopes that malevolent governments don’t get hold of Andres’s score, and that he doesn’t receive a contract from the C.I.A. to develop the musical equivalent of waterboarding torture devices.

The evening closed with the New York City premiere of Bruno Mantovani’s sharp, decaying “Chamber Concerto No. 2” for sextet, in which the eighth blackbird’s entire complement performed. “Concerto” commenced with a jazzy, techno sound created by piano and bass clarinet, next adding jarring cymbal and gong, then woozy flute, proceeding into an indeterminately improvised synthesis.

If eighth blackbird underdelivered, SONiC showed a path for successful innovation as exemplified by the collaboration of choreographers and dancers with composers and musicians at Joyce SoHo, which hosted “SONiC AfterHours: New Sounds, New Moves.” The program featured collaborations between Darcy Naganuma and Michael Klingbeil, Miro Magloire and Michel Galante, Rebecca Stenn and Konrad Kaczmarek, and Deborah Lohse and David Fulmer. This natural, multidisciplinary integration is greatly to be applauded, given the opportunities for mutual enhancement and effectiveness that these intimately related arts present, and the recognition that music is rarely ever a discrete phenomenon, but rather a contextual element—whether in the performing or multimedia arts. Dance especially depends on fortuitous scoring. To state it most directly: When dance fails, it is at least as often because the music is weak as because the dance is. Stated more positively: When the music is well-matched with movement, it energizes and amplifies dance’s appeal and emotive impact. One hopes that the next installment of SONiC will include more events like this.

Somewhat astonishingly, SONiC wasn’t documented and made available on YouTube. Whether this was a matter of budget, a pre-emptive protection of perceived intellectual property, a simple lack of understanding of expectations in the Age of I (as in Internet), or an oversight on the part of the organizers and Q2, New York Public Radio’s online radio station, it’s a real shame that those unable to attend the numerous performances will likewise be unable to revisit the numerous world premieres and wide variety of music created by SONiC’s many talented, innovative composers and musicians. One hopes this will be corrected next year.

How will the music created and performed at SONiC fare in future, let alone present, evaluation? Listening to music informed by everything we know so far, drawing, as it does, on the documented library of humanity’s accumulated musical imagination and breadth, it’s appropriate for a critic to be humbly respectful of hardworking professionals. Composition is labor-intensive, and performance requires a level of disciplined praxis that weeds out the uncommitted. Under these circumstances, particulars of taste and openness to experimentation are undeniable factors in appreciation. That said, there seems to be a strange convergence in the philosophy and quality of classically rooted compositions and populist techno-improvisers. Even the name “SONiC Festival” is hardly distinguishable from this spring’s “Unsound Festival” of noise. Maybe, one muses, aleatoric music has become—dare I say it—boring. Please: Give me sounds other than dissonant, and emotions other than discontinuous: daily life delivers those effectively enough.

Perhaps, perhaps, the challenge confronting composers today is rather one of purpose. Lacking dulcet gavottes, sweeping operas, and heroic symphonies to formulaically compose, our musically creative contemporaries, it seems, are stuck in the ruts of novelty and noise, including that which causes neurophysical pain, making one nostalgic for a little night music. Nihilism, neuroscientists will undoubtedly discover, is insalubrious to one’s musical health. 

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