review of "A la Memoire d'un Ami" CD
music by Ira Mowtz

Brad Garton

There is no such thing as an "objective" review.  This review will be more
subjective than most -- it is impossible for me to make any pretense of
objectivity in talking about Ira Mowitz' CD "A la Memoire d'un Ami".
Indeed, I believe that pretensions of objectivity, particularly when
describing experiences as private and personal as music, are just that:
pretensions.  My remarks about "A la Memoire d'un Ami" should be qualified,
however, by the fact that Ira and I have been good friends for years.  I am
also an unabashed fan of his music.

I was concerned that this would unduly compromise my ability to react
"critically" to Mowitz' music, especially if such reaction requires the
adoption of a "critical distance"; the trappings of a pseudo-scientific
objectivity.  This isn't how I normally listen to music, and it certainly
isn't how I *want* to experience music.  Instead, I prefer to enjoy music by
becoming personally engaged, by building a relationship between sound and
thought.  I think that the best job I can do as a reviewer is to explicate
the details of that personal engagement and attempt to articulate why a
piece of music strikes me -- personal, subjective me -- in a particular way.

So I came to see this review as a chance to think hard about why I enjoy
this CD, and as an opportunity to verbalize some of my enthusiasm for
Mowitz' music.  I like this music a lot, partly because of its neo-Romantic
sense of tonality and gesture, and partly because it truly invites the
listener to consider it primarily *as* *music* -- it is not a demonstration
of an algorithmic process nor is it an exploration of a timbral space opened
up by some new signal-processing technique.  I am using a pretty narrow
definition of the word "music" here, and I don't mean to be pejorative in
my distinction of this *as* *music* from other musics (such as
algorithmically-generated music, for example, a category which could easily
describe my own compositions).  It's just that Mowitz writes for the
computer in a rather traditional manner, as if he were writing for a
chamber orchestra or a string quartet.  He takes a very note-oriented
compositional stance, a perspective informed by considerations which have
been counted as *musical* (in the European tradition) for centuries;
considerations of intervallic relationships, motivic development,
contrapuntal relations, etc.  For better or for worse, these items cannot
be employed in many sound/timbre-oriented computer music, or are
consciously ignored or contradicted in other contemporary pieces.  This
use of traditional devices gives Mowitz' music an accessibility and
familiarity for those of us brought up in Western cultures.

Mowitz' "composerly" approach is quite apparent in "A la Memoire d'un Ami",
the title piece of the CD.  His minute attention to orchestrational details
(such as the bell-accents of single notes in the middle section of the
piece) as well as his awareness of larger-scale spans of musical time makes
this award-winning piece (First Prize, Bourges, 1984) a stunning example of
how the computer can function as an ensemble of virtual instruments.  This
piece is one of the few pieces of computer music I can imagine (and have in
fact heard) existing comfortably in a concert-hall environment.  By tying
into a traditional musical sensibility, Mowitz locates this piece firmly in
concert-hall territory.  This impression is reinforced through the use of a
relatively reverberant environment for the synthesized sounds.

The piece makes heavy use of synthetic vocal timbres.  I'm somewhat allergic
to FM timbres these days, especially FM vocal sounds.  Through his careful
orchestration and sense of musical flow, however, Mowitz does a convincing
job with the Chowning FM voice model.  More importantly, the first melody
in the piece sounds as if it is coming from a human about fourteen feet tall
with a several-foot-wide head.  I think that the fake-but-real aspect of
this sound is important to my acceptance of the timbre as a 'human' voice.
It is so obviously unreal, but at the same time vocal-like, that I'm willing
to suspend belief and accept it for what it pretends to be.  I believe that
this perceptual forgiveness on my part is what makes other unreal/real music
have the kick it does -- music such as Jean-Baptiste Barriere's "Chreode"
or Paul Lansky's LPC voice pieces.

"A la Memoire d'un Ami" is what I would call a "journey" piece.  It flows
smoothly from one musical region to the next, sort of like drifting down
a metaphorical river, stopping to visit a few castles made from selected
chords or melodic motifs.  Mowitz divides the work into three untitled
sections.  I could argue for further divisions, a result of the relatively
seamless progress of the music and my own way of parsing it.  My hazy
description is certainly not indicative of any fuzziness in the music,
however.  Mowitz maintains tight control over his sounds.  The remarkable
aspect of this piece is that Mowitz' sharply-focussed gestures unfold in
a very relaxed manner.  The music is allowed lots of space to breathe.
The result is a flavor of "New Age" music owing much more to Debussy and
Mahler than to Yanni or Ray Lynch, an impression strengthened by Mowitz'
facile use of functional tonality.

The piece begins with a moderately dense contrapuntal section consisting
entirely of synthetic voices.  The voices gradually build to a climactic
point which collapses into a cluster of plucked-string sounds.  The echoes
of this collapse are subsumed into a slowly repeating pattern of FM brass
chords (again *processed* FM brass, very authentically "fake" sounds).
These chords form the basis for the next section of the piece, an extended
expansion of the residue resulting from the implosion of the first section.
The piece concludes with a lush vocal passage easily connected to the
opening because of the timbres used (the "Basso Profundo" makes a dramatic
entrance towards the very end of the piece).  This ending section proceeds
from a muted recapitulation of the Big Collapse into a decaying harmonic
cycle, finally dissolving into nothingness at the end of the piece.

My favorite piece on this CD is "Darkening".  In contrast to "A la Memoire
d'un Ami", "Darkening" is a much more static, more placid stretch of time
than the journey enacted through "A la Memoire d'un Ami".  With its gentle,
fifth-ish diatonic harmonies layered on top of subterranean, unearthly
foghorn-rumbles (be sure to listen to this using good speakers!),
"Darkening" evokes a landscape of subtly shifting colors; not a place for
travelling through so much as a place for rest and inward contemplation.
This piece slips me into one of my favorite modes of listening -- becoming
totally immersed in sound without feeling forced or pushed by the composer.

To do this is no easy compositional trick, and Mowitz' careful
craftsmanship in this piece reminds me of the better work of Wendy
Carlos.  "Darkening" brings to my mind a feeling similar in spirit to
Carlos "Fall" from the record "Sonic Seasonings".  This isn't because they
share many obvious musical features, although Mowitz employs the sounds of
wind and water in his piece (as Carlos does in "Fall"), it is more
because the measured harmonies of both pieces lead me to a particular state
of mind; a sort of hopeful melancholia, a passive quietude -- like driving
through mountains at dusk.  I truly wish that "Darkening" were much longer.
It is a lovely piece of music.

For some reason it was hard for me to get a good handle on "Shimmering", the
final cut on the CD.  Although the title suggests that it is somehow a
companion piece to "Darkening", it sounds more like it is located 
almost exactly halfway between the obvious compositional intensity of
"A la Memoire d'un Ami" and the mellow meditation of "Darkening".  The piece
moves through time as if the music were some kind of object to be explored,
gradually rotating to reveal hidden facets.  The opening arpeggio motif
even *sounds* like rotation to me.  This is my least favorite music on the
CD, possibly because of the sonic orchestration of the piece.  Mowitz uses
FM string timbres in large parts of "Shimmering" which, combined with a 
relatively cheesy reverberation algorithm, sound a bit strident to my ears.
To be sure, "Shimmering" is a beautiful piece, but it just doesn't connect
with me in the strong and personal ways that "A la Memoire d'un Ami" and
"Darkening" do.  Perhaps something about the 'objectness' of the piece creates
a distance and separates it from me.  The music is almost too polished for
its own good.  I can appreciate the compositional craftsmanship, but it
doesn't sound like it is a part of me.

Ultimately this is what I really want music to do -- to become part of me
(or my 'exteriorally projected auditory shadow', as I think Eliot Handelman
puts it).  I map particular experiences I've had onto music I know (and
vice-versa) and the resulting synthesis forms part of the fabric of my life.
Mowitz' music works quite well in this scenario; the music seems designed to
provoke an imaginative response.  I can't hear the bell sounds in the middle
of "A la Memoire d'un Ami" without being transported back to winter
holidays.  Perhaps the bells sound "winter-like" to me, or maybe I'm
recalling the winter in Princeton when "A la Memoire d'un Ami" was realized.
"Darkening" is a place for me, a tangible and specific place that I plan to
visit often.

In any case, these pieces have become part of my musical life.  I find them
to be powerful and moving musical experiences, I think not despite but
because of the traditional compositional stance taken by Mowitz, and the
intelligent and thoughtful crafting of sounds that comes with that
territory.  I realize that this has been a bit of a "flaky" review, relying
heavily on conjured metaphors and half-described personal imagery.  This
music has come to mean a lot to *me*, however, and I can't think of any
better way to communicate this.