Following a year without visible activity, our composer-led organization After Now presented a richly rewarding program of fixed-media electronic pieces. The evening was part of the 130% Surround Sound series during the month of August 2010 at the newly renovated Red Room.
The program was notable for its range of different sound worlds. Andrew Cole's Staring at the Sun conjures beautiful things that blur the distinction between organic and synthetic sound. C.R. Kasprzyk had blogged that he was noticing how we are surrounded by literal electromagnetic fields, so he captured them (as RF interference? not sure) and used them as his materials. I like the idea of calling attention to something invisible we take for granted, especially when it's something we need to think about for the well being of our ecology, and Kasprzyk assembled those sounds into a really coherent piece. Samuel Burt's intense high-frequency tones were admittedly hard to listen to, but the interference between the tones, differing only slightly in pitch, created a curious sensation of being immersed in a truly three-dimensional field. The effect in quadrophonic sound was extraordinary. Burt introduced his other short piece "Unwound Surround" as if to say we should not take it seriously, but it seemed really well crafted and great fun to listen to. Special note is due to guest composer Jeff Carey's contribution, an electronic work on a symphonic scale in the way the piece unfolds and in the depth and variety of textures.
I was sincerely grateful to be included on such a strong program. My own work, Outside-in, was influenced by a couple of pieces by Luc Ferrari, "Music Promenade" and the Presque Rien pieces from the 60s and "Tuchan-Chantal" from the 70s. Another influence was the Frankenstein Symphony (1997) by Francis Dhomont. The sounds of Dhomont's recent work are not limited to natural sounds, but there are numerous long takes of natural sound. Thinking about long takes also got me thinking about films by Andy Warhol and Michael Snow. What all these things have in common is that they foreground the framing gesture, the projection of presence.
I decided to attempt a musique concrète piece with a kind of documentary aesthetic, resisting my usual inclination toward frequent edits and aggressive processing, but still giving myself some flexibility to assemble the takes and, occasionally, to call attention to the artificiality of recording.
The piece explored pairing different stereo recordings to try to create the illusion of being inside and outside the same space. Then sometimes I would violate that illusion by putting one longer take against two or three different things. For example, a muffled conversation is first paired with children playing, then construction noises replace the children while the conversation continues. The illusion is also consciously broken by using recordings with obvious microphone wind noise, and occasionally by isolating and repeating brief sounds.
I had been noticing the little sounds of coffee in my life, and so coffee activity is heard throughout. I chose three different locations: our apartment in our little "village" of Hampden in Baltimore; a cabin that my wife's parents own in rural WV during a thunderstorm; and then back to Hampden for street and coffeehouse sounds. A trumpet player, traffic, and a jackhammer and other construction noises were all recorded at different times from our front porch. The conversation took place on our front porch, so I recorded it from just inside. The children playing on a school playground can be heard just outside our apartment also, but I walked around the corner to record them more clearly. The birds were at about 5:30 a.m. in my in-laws' back yard, also rural WV. I thought they served to punctuate the change from urban to rural and give the ears a break from the boxy sound of the Hampden recordings.
Listening to this concert in a darkened room with a small audience seated in two concentric circles surrounded by four loudspeakers offered a very satisfying kind of engagement, a "suturing-in." Be sure to catch the remaining 130% Surround Sound events at the Red Room, and watch the websites of all these composers - and AfterNow.org - for more music.