In the seven concerts of the second half of the 2017 New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival held this month at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, New York, the full diversity and eclectic versatility of electroacoustic music was on vibrant, energetic display; the densely packed weekend of music was exciting, sometimes disconcerting and sometimes thrilling, and always fascinating. Sixty-six works by sixty-six composers were performed … a dizzying array of instruments, equipment, performers, sensibilities and effects!
One of several major electroacoustic festivals around the world that provide performance opportunities for the peculiarly young and mobile electroacoustic composing community, the NYC Electroacoustic Music Festival began in the 2009-2010 year as an academic conference, based at City University of New York’s Queens College, where composer Hubert Howe was, for many years, professor of music – he is now emeritus – and director of the electronic music studio. With gradual cutbacks in the overall CUNY music program, the festival shifted away from CUNY but not from New York City or Howe’s singular and superior artistic and administrative leadership; it is now an independent entity.
Electroacoustic music requires festivals for large scale performances because the medium – the computers’ infrastructures, the speakers, the mixers and mics, as well as “regular” instruments, both traditional and non-traditional – require site capabilities that many performance spaces and older concert halls simply can’t provide: in this sense, facilities determine festivals. Sites such as the Abrons Arts Center in Manhattan, where the first 21 of this year’s 28 concerts were held in early July, and National Sawdust can support the equipment needs of both composers and performers; festivals in these performance spaces are a sensible and productive way to pull together this particular artistic community and its audience for shared support and inspiration.
From its very beginning, the NYCEMF has always presented some of the finest composers and musicians in this field. As always, Howe chairs an exceptionally skilled and insightful advisory council to sort through the composition selection process. This year, the council consists of twenty-two composers and musicians. Most of them come from the New York-New Jersey area, representing institutions such as CUNY, New York University, SUNY-Stony Brook, Ramapo College and Rutgers University, but a few come from as far away as Missouri, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Thuwal on the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.
An international call for composers to submit pieces for consideration for the Festival is issued each fall; composers must submit finished works. This year, out of about 500 submissions, approximately 200 works were accepted. Of these, the composers came from thirty-one countries on five continents; the countries other than the United States most frequently represented were China, Japan, Korea, Italy, Germany, England and France.
The Festival booklet – an exceptionally useful program guide offering biographies of each composer and a brief description of each piece performed – was invaluable.
The works fell into several major categories. Close to half of the works were “fixed media.” In these, all the sounds and tracks had already been manufactured, and their “performance” emerged from control at the mixing board.
Other pieces were “videos.” Some videos were generated by software that was directly connected to the music being created; some were made with other software to accompany the music, or were assembled from stock images, photographs and public domain film clips. Overall, works in this category varied widely in quality. In a few cases, videos seemed amateurish in quality; in a few cases, the video was an awkward add-on, distracting from the quality of the music itself. In a few, the videos provided the outlines of a narrative, but fell short of being a coherent film.
In a few marvelous instances, the videos and the music were so closely and effectively connected as to reinforce and enhance each other: for the audience, eye and ear received simultaneously the same pronouncements in visual and aural languages. Two splendid examples of this success were Marc Ainger’s elegant Scribbles and Smears in Space, a work in which “the sound and the video are generated using the same algorithmic processes” and Patricia Martinez’ short, intense and deeply poignant Al trasluz del recuerdo, “a reflection on modalized time” and an unsettling examination of loss and suffering.
Another common format was live instrument – for instance, cello, saxophone, flute, violin – with recorded electronic sounds. This kind of piece often had an unexpectedly conservative feel to it: the traditional pull of duets and dialogue, like the constantly shifting balance-play of the concerto, felt very strong. Sometimes in these pieces, the composer was the soloist. One particularly fine example of this live-instrument/electronic recording pairing was Joshua Harris’ Aubade with Wayla Chambo on flute and alto flute; in this richly sensuous and eloquent piece, music is successfully conveyed the intentions of poetry, creating a sound-song rather than a word-based song.
A few pieces were mime-theater or dance works. Their place in this festival derived from the nature of the music to which the performers responded, but these particular works would have been equally “at home” in other kinds of art and performance venues as well.
Two interconnected, abiding responses to these seven concerts linger. One is delighted excitement. The other is maddened frustration.
The excitement emerges from admiration for the artistic energy, practical innovation and creative integrity of this loosely connected, dynamic community of composers and performers. In each concert, at least half of the audience consisted of fellow-composers and musicians. As both artists and audience, they constantly located and re-located their engagement with the work at hand on a long, sinuous continuum from fun and frivolity to seriousness and cosmic portent.
By and large, these composers are disciplined in their craft; because the sounds available to them – found sounds, created sounds, distorted sounds, recorded sounds – are so nearly infinite in number, individual composers must exercise considerable patience and develop intellectual stamina to realize their artistic talents in the creation of their own musical vocabularies. Simultaneously, as Howe pointed out in a conversation comparing electronic composing and “traditional” composing, the hardware and software of electronic music can open worlds of possibility to composers: when an eighty-piece orchestra is nowhere to be had, electronic media can produce that same number of musical sounds … and more. In this Festival, the most successful pieces were an affirmation that creativity is innate to human nature: in these composers, the urge to make art and the quest for the right media meet in dazzling pieces of music.
The inevitable frustration of the Festival unfolds from the fact that no single composer gets more than a few minutes of exposure. Performed pieces ranged in length from five to fifteen minutes; of sixty-six pieces, only four were longer than sixteen minutes (but shorter than nineteen). For most of the composers, this one short piece sample makes the listener wish there were more, but the Festival format doesn’t permit this. On the other hand, without festivals such as these, many of these composers would not have public exposure beyond their immediate home-communities at all.
The solutions to this maddening problem are familiar to all who care about the performing arts, and as difficult to come by: money and audience expansion. Because of costs associated with site and equipment, electronic and electroacoustic music is expensive to present; without increased audience support, new facilities are not likely to contain the built-in electronic infrastructures necessary for this music and, in old facilities, rental of electronic equipment costs a fortune. Increased awareness of this wonderful area of music composition and production is in constant competition with increased awareness of other “specialized” areas of music – classical, opera, choral, chamber – as well as the creative and performing arts in general.
The situation epitomizes cliché truths. Money and increased awareness are a chicken and egg problem: there’s no way to determine which comes first. And it’s a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest world out there: commercial success beats underfunded creativity every time.
But there is a particularly democratic hope attached to electroacoustic music. It is, almost by definition, an interdisciplinary undertaking: science meets art and engineering meets music. As artists in other fields – ranging from dance to sculpture, film to theater – continue to discover and develop interdisciplinary connections and possibilities, electronic musicians will be at the forefront of newly emerging creative fields. Classically trained musicians are stretched beyond and around their traditions in the integration of their “regular” instruments into new sounds and purposes; insights from classical traditions and contemporary experiments shape and enrich each other. For artists and audiences alike, the compositional possibilities inherent to electronic and electoacoustic music challenge us to new ideas, offer new answers to old questions, and even call up new questions.
As a medium, electroacoustic music presents particularly rigorous challenges to inherited reverence for particular kinds of music, providing definitive evidence that traditional and time-honored ways of exploring meaning are neither the only ones nor necessarily the better ones. Staple subjects of Romantic music, for instance – universal grandeur, paradoxes of anguish and ecstacy, loss and regeneration, divinity made manifest – were equally the subjects of compositions in this Festival by composers such as Jeff Hall, Stephen Dydo, Alice Shields, Fred Szymanski, Ryan Olivier, Seth Shafer, Kevin Kay, Yue Dai, Michael Olson and Howe himself. A symphony orchestra and a fixed media presentation are equally capable of creating beauty: the success of a work of art is not determined by its medium.
According to Howe, Festival organizer and leader, composers are already discussing works they hope to submit for acceptance into the 2018 New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival. With memories of the wide variety of 2107 Festival still vivid, audiences can look forward to the surprises and rewards 2018 will bring.
N.B.: Particular pieces from the Festival are considered in three companion-reviews, NYCEMF: Outstanding Artists, NYCEMF: Composer as Creator, and NYCEMF: Political Protest and Social Justice.
2017 New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival: Seven Concerts (July 14 – 16, 2017)
July 14: 5:00-6:00, 7:00-9:30
July 15: 3:00-5:00, 7:00-9:30, 10:00-11:00
July 16: 3:00-5:00, 7:00-9:30
National Sawdust, 80 North 6th St, in Brooklyn
For more information: visit http://www.nycemf.org