ICMC 1992
Review of Concerts 7 and 8
by Brad Garton, Columbia University Music Department

Concert 7:  October 17, 1:00 PM

Saturday afternoon's concert opened with Eric Chasalow's tape piece "This
Way Out".  There seems to be something of a "movement" in the Northeastern
United States to incorporate some of the drive and energy of rock music into
the academic art-music culture.  Chasalow's piece is certainly infused with
this zeitgeist.  In the notes I scribbled at the concert, I described this
piece as "FM rock-n-roll Babbitt."  I can almost imagine Chasalow's record
collection (probably similar to my own!).  This was possibly the only piece
during the entire ICMC that I felt could have been played louder.

"This Way Out" was followed by "Nahual II", an absolutely beautiful piece
for chamula harp and tape by Roberto Morales.  According to Morales, a
chamula harp is an instrument used in religious ceremonies by the Mexican
Chamula Indian community.  The harp is employed by sorcerers to explore
alternative realities.  Morales did a marvelous job of creating a new
reality through the delicate interplay of the harp sounds and the tape.
Even the inevitable audience noises seemed to me subsumed into the
experience of the piece; a very mind-expanding and magical music.

Jonty Harrison's "...et ansi de suite..." began with some vivid sounds that
were reminiscent of glasses or balls being bounced on a table.  These sounds
were then expanded using a variety of computer-processing techniques.  I
liked the processing and the unfolding of the piece, but Harrison
unfortunately chose to play the music back at a rather loud volume.  This
choice, coupled with the length of the piece, made for a rather
uncomfortable experience.  I wish I could have heard the tape at home
instead of in a loud and crowded concert hall.

"The Lead Plates of the Rom Press" by Jonathan Berger was simply stunning.
Rarely do I have an experience in a concert hall such as the one I had
hearing this piece.  I think Berger set me up with his title and program
notes: "The Rom press was a publishing house in Poland known for its
editions of Yiddish poetry and Talmudic tracts.  During the Nazi occupation
members of the Resistance attempted to melt down the plates ... in order to
produce ammunition."  I could literally hear the war planes and advancing
Nazi forces in the processed computer sounds.  Setting these against the
plaintive and moving 'cello  part created one of those transcendent
emotional feelings which is nearly impossible to verbalize.  So powerful was
this feeling for me that the applause after the piece was almost disturbing.

Possibly the only piece in the world which could have followed Berger's
powerful music is Doug Scott's "Interlude and Fantasy" for tape.  I really
enjoyed this music, partially because of the way Scott used the concert-hall
context to insinuate his music into the listening environment, and partially
because the music didn't simply stop with his opening move.  The piece began
with digitized recordings of audience noise (coughing, paper-rustling,
etc.).  The performance started before the audience was aware that the tape
was playing, and it was a wonderful moment when the ICMC audience realized
that the sick and coughing group of people were actually "virtual"; part of
the music.  Scott then used these digitized audience sounds as input to
various signal-processing algorithms to created a well-crafted and engaging

One final comment -- I feel lucky to have been asked to review this
particular concert.  In my opinion, it was one of the strongest and most
satisfying of any of the ICMC concerts.  Perhaps I was just in the mood to
hear some good computer music on a Saturday afternoon.

Concert 8:  October 17, 8:00 PM

Poor Mari Kimura suffered what every computer musician using live processing
fears most: a major system crash shortly after the piece ("'U' (The
Cormorant)") began.  Fortunately, after a simple reboot and restart and the
music flowed.  I actually enjoyed one side-effect of the system crash, the
audience was treated to hearing the opening of the piece twice.  The
consummate professional, Kimura was able to re-perform the music with her
usual intense virtuosity.  Her music was quite interesting, sounding to me
like a unique blend of Mario Davidovsky and Henry Kaiser.  Watching the
interaction between a  performer with Kimura's skill and a responsive
computer-music system was also instructive, although I wish that the
computer part had made more use of her own beautiful violin sound.

"Echo for John Pierce" by Jean-Claude Risset was another elegant tape
composition from one of the acknowledged masters of computer music.  After
hearing a large number of long and rambling pieces at the ICMC, it was
refreshing to hear such refined and well-proportioned music.  This attention
to compositional scale and structure, along with the use of processed
clarinet and Celtic harp sounds, created a sense of "21st century Debussy"
in me.  I very much enjoyed this music.

The Northeast rock/academic art-music aesthetic resurfaced again in Dennis
Miller's "A Bit Above".  The driving rhythms of the piano, coupled with the
interesting analog-like timbres of the tape rooted this music firmly in some
of the rock "tradition" of the 1970's -- at least for me, it did.  Miller
reinforces this notion by stating in his program notes that "the rhythmic
element is based primarily on an intuitive sense of continuity."  I suspect
that he and I probably listened to some of the same music on the radio in
our formative years.  Miller's music was also an example of another healthy
trend in computer music: the creation of interesting and vibrant music
without the use of the latest multi-thousand dollar computer system.

My experience of Nicolay Apollyon's "Honkyoku" for shakuhachi flute and tape
was utterly destroyed by the concert context.  This slowly evolving and
meditative piece had no business being performed in an uncomfortable concert
environment.  The tape part alone sounded like a delicate extension of
a 'shakuhachi ambience', amplifying the inner-looking aspects and timbral
sensitivity I associate with the instrument.  Why was I forced to listen to
this lengthy piece while sitting next to some snickering idiots?  This was a
piece of music which should have been heard privately.

Larry Wendt presented a rather bizarre composition titled "The Graton
Conference" for speaking voice and electronics.  I was glad that the piece
was programmed because it was so different from anything else at the
conference.  It reminded me of a radio show I used to hear while driving
back from New York late at night, I believe the title of the show was "Joe
Frank's Work in Progress" (or something like that).  Wendt read a
description of a strange journey home from work, winding through a small
Californian village where several odd conferences were being held, with
Bigfoot legends somehow being woven into the fabric of the text.  The
computer-music aspect of the piece was minimal.  Wendt occasionally delayed
his voice with a Macintosh computer, but I heard no other overt use of
processed or synthesized sounds.  Taking a rather "composerly" stance, I
could criticize this piece because of this -- I would have enjoyed hearing
some more technological extensions of Wendt's reading, but this may have
been counter to the point of the piece.  The text itself contained a number
of California in-jokes, which left me a bit in the dark.  This was another
piece which was ill-served by the concert hall.  A radio performance, for
example, would have opened up my imagination more.

I knew in advance that I would enjoy Paul Lansky's "Table's Clear" because I
had heard it many times before.  "Table's Clear", a piece constructed using
digitized recordings of Lansky's children banging on dishes and pans (Lansky
uses some algorithmic compositional techniques to create the Lansky Family
Gamelan Orchestra), is one of my favorite pieces of music.  From my seat in
the hall, however, this piece received a very poor performance.  I arrived
after many of the choice listening seats had been taken, and I had to settle
for a position very close to one of the back speakers.  What I heard, a
one-channel mono version of the piece, was quite disappointing.  My
companions (who did not know the music well) did enjoy the performance, but
my advice is to buy the CD and listen to it at home.

The concert finished with Takayuki Rai's "Three Inventions" for a small
ensemble with live processing by IRCAM workstations.  The piece was
commissioned by the International Computer Music Association for this
conference, and I have vivid memories of Rai frantically working to finish
the music in the days prior to the concert.  I think this colored my
impression of the music, because it sounded somewhat unfinished.  I could
easily have heard more of the sounds Rai was achieving with the IRCAM card,
especially some of the warped delay effects (these are almost becoming a
staple in the IRCAM workstation arsenal).  I hope I get a chance to hear
this piece again someday.

The astute reader will notice that many of my criticisms of the music
presented on these concerts stem from the fact that the music was indeed
presented on a concert.  I am dismayed that so much of the computer music
community's efforts seem to go towards producing "concert" pieces, when so
much else is possible with our technology.  Why must we continue to
implicitly insist that getting a piece accepted for a performance on a
CONCERT at the ICMC is the top of the hierarchy built by our collective
musical judgement?  This is especially troublesome when presentation in a
concert-hall environment may be destructive to the musical experience of a
given piece.  The jury for the 1992 ICMC was completely overwhelmed by the
number of musical submissions for the eight concerts, and many of the
concerts were overly long because of extended programming.  I think it is
time we put on our thinking caps and begin actively exploring alternative
ways of structuring the presentation of music at future ICMCs.