The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

Electronic Engagement

Issue Project Room
March 23
New York

The mutable ensemble Zs, together with Mivos Quartet, played a difficult, dissonant show at ISSUE Project Room in late March. Mivos’s varied program ranged from Bach to contemporary composer Tristan Perich and also included a piece by Zs guitarist Patrick Higgins. Zs stuck to their own compositions, a frenzied blend of guitar, saxophone, and drums, plus electronics brought forth from laptops and elaborate pedal arrays. Mivos’s (mostly) analog arrangements and Zs disorienting mix posed a challenge to the audience: How to deal with this kind of eclecticism?

Zs at ISSUE Project Room. Photo: Bradley Buehring.

Maybe this was the wrong question. Both acts offered an impressive blast of sound—it was tempting to simply let it wash over you. Still, the music seemed to demand engagement. Zs drummer Greg Fox’s rhythmic assault wasn’t just pummeling; it was also polyrhythmic. Mivos Quartet drew ghostly skreels and scrapes from their bow strings—a sound that was spooky in its own right, sure, but even more so when paired with Bach’s baroque counterpoint. What’s more, the evening’s electronic element threatened at times to alienate the audience—a pre-recorded track dialed in from a laptop does not have the most compelling stage presence. Whether or not the distinction mattered, active engagement with the music meant trying to determine where the players left off and the digital accompaniment began.

First on the program was Mivos Quartet, which opened its set with a piece called “Moonblood” by composer Mario Diaz de Leon (b. 1979). The piece began slowly, snatches of melody escaping from a faint background—a high whine like an amp feeding back. This built to a dissonant but gripping chord, individual notes from the violins sawing up and down in small, chromatic intervals, grounded by the tonic note on the cello. The rhythm grew more insistent as the piece progressed, but the pattern held. Others took up the tonic, single notes still seesawing, now in phase, now out, like sirens. Shadows mingled with the dark lines of a tattoo on cellist Mariel Roberts’s forearm as her hand crept up the neck of her instrument, her playing mingling with that of the others in the upper register as the piece came to an end.

Following this was Bach’s “Contrapunctus XIX,” arranged by Patrick Higgins of Zs. This piece was slow to develop as well, the music moving forward at a languid pace which emphasized the melancholy of the harmonic structure—an unresolved seventh here, a circle-of-fifths progression there. The cello’s tone was rich and staid, its role more to color the proceedings than to anchor them. It took up the countermelody in fits; occasionally viola and cello would drop out entirely, while the two violins played intertwining melodies. The piece ended abruptly, like a speaker caught mid-sentence.

It seemed odd, including Bach—“Contrapunctus XIX” was the only piece on the program that wasn’t a contemporary composition. Tristan Perich’s “Salt” was more in line with expectations. Perich, known for his “1-Bit Symphony,” an ingenious composition for 1-bit electronics that Perich distributed by placing a microchip in a CD case, is Artist-in-Residence at ISSUE Project Room. His piece “Chalk” premiered there last April in a performance by the ensemble Yarn/Wire. The prominent role of 1-bit electronics in his work give it a distinctive, memorable character, as if the composer himself were present in the form of these insistent digital tones.

“Salt” required Mivos Quartet to play in tandem with a 1-bit electronic track. The viola and violins played a rhythmic tachycardia, moving in and out of phase. The cello played whole notes, danced around the shifting, squealing center of the high-pitched 1-bit track. There was a sense of bliss when all the parts met in unison. The piece turned on a pivot, a simple key change to the dominant midway through presaged by a kind of hunter’s call from the cello. The move was momentous. After the change the cello was more lively, more fluid, the other strings pegging the harmony in the high register. The piece ended with the cello playing solo.

Mivos’s portion of the evening closed with “Aletheia,” billed as a “preview excerpt” from a Patrick Higgins composition titled SQ3 Encomium. The piece alternated between short bursts of bowed notes and a creeping pizzicato. The strings built a big but dissonant chord. A steady note from the cello anchored the first violinist as he clawed at his instrument, and the piece progressed to a scraping cacophony. Hearing the musicians bring forth these harsh, fascinating sounds, you could only wonder what the score must look like. I imagined bars of music flecked with metal shavings and rust.

Such pondering seemed quaint when Zs took the stage. It’s difficult imagining that a schema exists for the songs they played. This isn’t to suggest that they were unstructured; rather, their structure seemed both intuitive and, at times, inscrutable. Partly this was a function of presentation: The group’s set began with guitarist Patrick Higgins busy with the pedals at his feet. His bandmate, saxophonist Sam Hillmer, was doing something complicated with a microphone and what looked like an oversized thimble, calling to mind a musical mortar and pestle. The drummer, Greg Fox, sat in front of a laptop with a gaze so indifferent he could have been checking his email—meanwhile, the music was building into a steady, high skreel of tones. It was unclear which of the three was responsible for which aspects of what was heard. By the time Higgins picked up his guitar there was a full mass of sound without a clearly discernible source.

It’s worth pondering for a moment, this inscrutability. I’m not a violinist; I have little notion of how to play even a basic song on the instrument, much less how to make the kind of scraping, haunting sounds that featured in Mivos Quartet’s set. Still, with the musicians in front of me, I can see them acting to make the sounds, and I can get a rough sense that the cello is doing one thing, the violin another. With Zs, or any band incorporating electronics to such an extent, I’m at a disadvantage. The interaction that takes place between musician and instrument is hidden from me. What for the musician is an involved action—cuing loops, incorporating pre-recorded tracks, or managing effects pedals—looks dull and uncompelling to me, sitting in the audience. That the end result of multiple musicians’ actions comes indistinguishably from the same P.A. speaker only lessens my engagement.

I don’t mean to suggest that Zs’s performance wasn’t compelling, but it makes sense to point out that such heavy use of electronics is awkward in a traditional performance setting. It changes the nature of the experience. To an extent, the musician takes on the role of D.J.; the audience member reverts to the role of home listener. What’s lost is the more immediate, visceral connection to the music typically associated with a live setting. On the other hand, the audience can take a more aesthetically detached approach to engaging with the music. Musicians presenting their work might find audiences that are more attentive, more discerning.

Zs’s set was not quite the exercise in abstract contemplation that I’m positing. As the first composition, “Wolf Government,” ended, Higgins began a guitar line, low and high notes ping-ponging up and down with kickback delay. Greg Fox entered on drums, then came Hillmer’s sax, in short, sharp bursts. This was the propulsive, polyrhythmic “Corps.” The trio layered duple and triple rhythms. Fox guided the band, whether steering the others to a breakdown, locking into a 6/8 rhythm or slowing the tempo. The rhythm grew more complex after the break, with Higgins stuttering triplets on his guitar as the piece ended.

“Xe” began with a bagpipe-like drone. Hillmer played a melody, a small series of notes from his sax moving downward as the drone kept up. Neither Hillmer nor Higgins seemed overly concerned with the tone of their instruments; even when taking up a prominent melodic or harmonic line, the individual instrument’s sound was subordinated to a larger sonic texture.

In fact, none of the pieces Zs played could be reduced to their individual components; there was no one melody that stood out, no stretch of music that was compelling apart from the rest of the set. A friend of mine, critical of this, argued afterwards that in refusing to offer such easy points of entry, the band’s set was needlessly off-putting. Seen another way, however, perhaps Zs’s goal was cohesion. By shifting the emphasis away from melody or other elements that could readily stand apart, the band formed an experience that was memorable in its totality.

Mivos Quartet joined the group for one last piece. All seven musicians began at once on a cue from Greg Fox. The piece had a bombast appropriate for a finale. Fox drove the song forward with a steady intensity, blasts from Hillmer’s sax coming on the downbeat. The piece would pour over into short, two-measure breaks, then pick right back up. The strings of Mivos Quartet maintained a slight presence at first—a violin’s faint scrape, a low note from the cello—but grew ever more prominent as the song plowed onward. Higgins’s guitar formed the backbone of the piece, a mutable line with high-pitched harmonics. Hillmer bounced up and down two octaves on the dominant; Higgins echoed him. The musicians segued into the final section, an epic stretch that introduced an imposing theme, half heavy metal, half James Bond. Earlier melodies popped up again, vying with the central theme and one another, as the piece barreled to a dramatic conclusion.

John Phillip Sousa, complaining towards the end of his life about the new phenomenon of recorded music and the changes he feared it would bring, said rather prissily, “The nightingale’s song is delightful because the nightingale herself gives it forth.” Sousa was worried that as recordings became more readily available, live musical performance would cease. The current state of things is hardly so apocalyptic, but it has become more complicated. Even the supposedly immediate context of live performance is mediated in a number of ways. Zs’s and Mivos Quartet’s incorporation of pre-programmed electronics further blurs the distinction between what is “live” and what isn’t.

The question of whether that distinction is important seems to hinge on the question of engagement versus alienation, but this is hardly a simple matter. The challenge musicians and listeners face is not to connect despite the many mediated tiers that separate them; rather this mediation forms a part of the connection. The string quartet plays in concert with the tinny digital whine. The guitarist records an instant loop, then starts a new riff to accompany it. The drummer stares dully at his laptop screen, then picks up his sticks and plays. The song is delightful because you have to ask yourself, who, or what, brings it forth?


Marshall Yarbrough

Marshall Yarbrough is assistant music editor at the Rail. He writes record reviews on his blog,


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

All Issues