Sequenza 21: The Concert (Aftermath)It's fascinating to witness parcels of history that work as convergence points of art, community, and technology. Last night's Sequenza 21 Concert at Elebash Recital Hall in the CUNY Graduate Center (New York City) seemed to be as vivid a convergence point as one could hope to find in the contemporary art music landscape.
Sequenza 21 is one of the most widely-read contemporary classical music websites on the Net today, consisting of a blog collective (ooh, tempted to say "Borg collective" - gotta watch my Star Trek obsessives! lol) from composers and performers. If you want a good overview of the modern art music scene, it's hard to find a more encompassing internet resource than this site. Over the summer, a simple idea germinated: why not put all the energies of Sequenza 21's contributing bloggers, composers and performers into presenting a concert? The call went out for composers to contribute scores and for performers to raise their virtual hands to lend their efforts into bringing those scores to life. Yes, yours truly jumped at the opportunity to participate in this exciting project, particularly after a MySpace meeting with David Toub, one of the site's main contributing editors, and a composer who "moonlights" as a gynecologist in the Philadelphia area. I have a really nice interview with David that i have to get around to editing as a podcast (just goes to show how backed up i am with my blog projects! sigh...)
To my delight, my offer was kindly received and i was given the opportunity to present two works: "Systems of Preference or Restraint" by Galen H. Brown for two pianos (i pulled a virtual Charlemagne Palestine with this performance, a la Golden Mean...more on this in a sec...), and "objects" for Piano, Marimba, and Electronic Organ (me on the organ this time!) by David Toub. Both Galen and David's works could be considered post-minimalist in nature: music that works with small repetitious elements to construct enormous landscapes of temporal and sonic shifts.
I nearly made a fatal mistake here: upon first glance, the music itself doesn't seem all that hard. Lots of repeating, simplistic figures - no problem, i thought, as i eyeballed the scores and mentally shelved them, thinking that it would be virtually sight-readable. Ah, but the devil it turns out is in the collaborative details! Galen's piece, as i mentioned, is for two keyboard instruments, but the idea was for me to play this by myself, given the fact that there would only be one piano on stage (a slight physical limitation!) In this instance, he proposed sending me a CD of a virtual piano rendition of one of the parts for me to play with. i think i gave a snooty response, requesting instead that he just send me the raw MP3 files instead - CD/tape is SO dead! hahahaha! Rather than trust an engineer to hit the "play" button at just the right moment, i wanted to opt for playing the sound file myself, using an audio editing program like Audacity to visualize the sound file for a more precise synchronization.
Given the start of Galen's piece, i opted to play the Piano 2 part (Piano 1 starts with running 16th notes, while Piano 2 starts with a sustained set of tied whole notes - easier for lining up the tempo) But when i started working on it, i was struck with how incredibly difficult it was to remain synchronized with the recording! Who knew that three note figures could be arranged in such maddeningly diverse patterns? I never imagined that the simplest elements could have such dastardly difficulties deeply embedded within them! The slowly dispersing pulse shifts, the out-of-phase harmonic drifts - i began to realize that Charlemagne Palestine's re-definition of so-called minimalist music as "MAX-imalist" is wonderfully accurate, as you are working with massive spectrums of time, rhythm, and slowly evolving harmonic blends that create a timeless sense of scale and aura. This was hard stuff!!
I used Audacity not only for the audio playback for the Piano 1 part, but also for visual track annotation: i was able to add placemarker letters on a label track that corresponded to key points in the score.
One concern i had was getting clear enough audio feedback so that i could accurately hear the recorded part. One little slip and realignment would be virtually impossible, given the speed and the lack of discernible musical contour! I originally planned to use noise-cancelling headphones, but silly me - i accidentally left them at home! Turns out the Audio Visual department at CUNY is amazing - they had some really nifty equipment, one being this device that could pull a clean signal from the headphone-out jack of my Compaq TC1100 Tablet PC:
Instead of using an eyesore pair of headphones, they also had a monitor speaker that did a surprisingly good job of feeding the audio back to the performer:
Tablet PC's to the rescue! I simply cannot imagine going back to using human page turners or even human CD/tape operators, given the complexity of this kind of music and the tight synchronization that needs to occur nonstrop throughout the piece! You may notice in the picture above that instead of using two Fujitsu Stylistic tablet pc's that i'm starting to use the smaller (10 inch screen) Compaq TC1100 for ancillary functions, like audio playback and visual elements (more on this in a sec!)
Kudos to Galen for a terrific composition! I hope to get a copy of the recording from him - maybe he'll be kind enough to let me post it here? It's really full of terrific energy and sonic textures - and i think the performance went pretty well too! :)
Moving on to David's trio for Piano, Marimba and Electronic Organ, which closed the recital (Galen's piece closed the first half of the program). It's interesting to note that - correct me if i'm wrong, David - this is the first time his work has been performed live by live musicians! Hopefully this will the first of many, many performances of his work which really deserves some serious exposure! As i mentioned above, i was the organist for this setup - the fiendish pianistic duties were taken up by Daniel Beliavsky, and the rock-solid rhythmic backbone was provided by marimbist-extraordinare Bill Solomon.
Minimalist music is tricky at best when played alone; in collaboration with others, it can be absolutely nightmarish, as the slightest miscount can quickly lead to disastrous results, given how difficult it is to re-orient yourself when the musical contours are as featureless as a Texan highway! That's not to say the music is boring - nothing could be further from that! The blending textures and rhythmic collisions create an aural canvas that is both immediately accessible to the ear and hypnotic in its epic scale of motion, drift, suspension and bloom. During our rehearsal the Friday before the concert, Daniel came up with the question: was there any way to have the score projected and automatically tracked so that we could follow along in case we got lost? The complex answer to that is "yes", there are programs like Home Concert Xtreme that do a really impressive job of 'tracking' piano performances with a scrolling score - the main problem in this situation lay in the fact that we were using an acoustic piano, not a MIDI keyboard. I believe AMuseTek makes an acoustic score tracking program, but it only works with solo piano (and i would be very dubious about its accuracy if the acoustic signature of the performance space was anything less than sterile - which it NEVER is, given echo, candy wrappers, and invasive cell phone chirps...) Rather than try something complex, i suggested we do something really really simple: create a slide presentation (using Liquid Media, my de facto presentation program heads and tails over PowerPoint) that would simply display the rehearsal letters corresponding to key spots in the score and sequentially triggered by a second Tablet PC and footswitch (exactly as i set up for Visual Recital performances). I initially thought about using my projector to throw the image up on my homemade screen, but then ditched that idea when i thought of the hassle of carrying all that extra equipment to NYC and back. Why not just use the TC1100 screen itself hoisted on a music stand? Turns out, we did one better: the AV guys had an extra 15 inch LCD monitor! The puppy was a little on the heavy side seated on the music stand, but fortunately it didn't tip over - voila, our 'virtual conductor', never yelling, never demeaning - if only real conductors could be as nice! LOL
David makes nice mention of my "tablet guru" geek outs on his blog!
One big drawback of closing the halves of the program was the fact that i really couldn't sit out in the audience to experience the other pieces. The snippets i heard from rehearsals really sounded terrific - i hope Sequenza 21 will post audio clips from the recital on their site asap! One noteworthy piece was a live electronics work by Anthony Cornicello entitled "The Gloved One" and featuring a P5 virtual reality glove interface:
The resulting sound sculpture, blending elements of Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and other random sonic goodness was fascinating to hear and watch in rehearsal. Unfortunately, the Mac
Anthony was using kept crashing, resulting in a protracted intermission and a re-ordering of the program while he nursed the setup to life (sorry, i have to harp on this a bit as a PC user: this is the THIRD mention of a Mac crash that i heard this week!)
Well, i have to admit that my Tablet PC did crash - LITERALLY! After playing Galen's piece and getting ready for the intermission reset, one of the stage workers inadvertently closed the piano music rack while my Fujitsu Tablet PC was still on it!!! Yes, folks, that's right: the tablet pc tumbled to the floor with a heart-sickening crash! A horrified gasp sucked the air out of the hall and stage for a few heart-stopping moments. I bent down, fully expecting a spider-web of LCD screen cracks - well, well, well, wouldn't you know? Aside from a few faint barely discernible scratches, the Fujitsu powered up with almost a twinkle in its eye and a beefy smile through its Microsoft-inspired glowing display! Not that i ever want to test that capability again, but it was amazing to see how durable and well-built this puppy turned out to be! What a relief!! (FYI, i had the scores to the recital copied onto the TC1100 just in case of disaster, enabling me to use that unit for the performance if necessary - backup, backup, backup!)
I'll post some more pictures from the concert as soon as i'm able to - i also want to scan and post a PDF of the program, as the other composers and their works really need to be mentioned in this blog.
A few suggestions for improving the next Sequenza 21 concert:
Kudos to the Sequenza 21 team for a ground-breaking event and for the new friendships that have sprung from this fantastic collaboration!
tags: sequenza21, Elebash_Hall, CUNY,
tags: sequenza21, Elebash_Hall, CUNY,