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.