Directed and superbly administered by composer Hubert Howe, Emeritus Professor of Music at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the annual Festival is the culmination of months and months of intellectual, artistic and managerial work. This year, Howe worked with a 22-member Steering Committee and a 22-member Reviewing Committee – with considerable personnel overlap – to plan and schedule the Festival and select the pieces to be performed from the hundreds of submissions from all over the world. The 101-page Festival book – invaluable, as always – contains clear, detailed program descriptions of each concert as well as brief biographies of all of the composers and performers.
This year, the Festival site was the Abrons Arts Center; the three performance venues in the facility – the Experimental Theater, the Playhouse and the Underground Theater – were all used. In the spacious Center, performers, composers and audience socialized and exchanged ideas and personal news throughout the week. Though the Festival composers came from many countries all over the world, the “community” of electroacoustic music is quite small; performers often know each other and each other’s colleagues and friends, knowledgeable audiences and strong supporters, an exceptionally eclectic and vibrant group, all interested in music that both affirms and expands the core questions about music that composers, performers and listeners have been exploring for centuries.
About half of the pieces presented were fixed media pieces: the sound was produced from a sound board, computers or mixing boards. These pieces were particularly well served in the Experimental Theater space: here, the audience sat in the round and the music came from sixteen speakers all around the room. Other pieces combined fixed media with live performances; fixed media sounds operated sometimes as context for various “traditional” Western and Asian instruments and other times as partner. Still other pieces involved performers – often, though not always, the composers themselves – who electronically amplified, manipulated, looped or repeated the music they were producing. A few pieces were videos, whether abstract or representational. Still others were presented by actors, or even volunteer audience members who improvised.
All the pieces, from the best to the few disturbingly mediocre and sophomoric, had one shared feature: this music expects and requires acute audience attention. Whether the generated sounds were screechingly loud or hissingly raucous on the one hand or so gentle and quiet as to be barely audible on the other, the music needs keenly intentional listening to be fully and deeply appreciated. Sometimes the intensity of intention leads to a near-meditative state with its paradoxes of everything-ness and nothing-ness; these pieces tend to be resolutely abstract, experiments in music-making, located squarely at the many possible meeting-places of art and computer engineering.
In contrast, other pieces tell stories or evoke landscapes, whether internal or external: it carries us along on emotional and psychological journeys. Still other music elicits from listeners a complete intellectual engagement. We are asked to consider matters as wide ranging as the ways in which traditional instruments and musical genres can be preserved, magnified, challenged or manipulated; how technology can expand musical vocabularies; how electronically produced sound can actually break the constraints of traditional musical instruments and genres; how intersections of science and art constantly challenge and inspire imagination and intellect to give music new shapes and sounds, structures and textures.
For artists and audience alike, one frustration hangs over this Festival. Because each concert contains 10 to 14 individual pieces by as many composers, each piece is short, an average of five to eight minutes. When a composer’s work is especially good, this severe time constraint is maddening: quite simply, we want to hear more, to see how more complex ideas might be developed. In addition, though the Festival provides significant opportunities and visibility for scores of unknown or young composers and musicians, no composer can be fully, or even adequately, represented by only five minutes of musical output. Some concerts, as a result, feel jumpily disjointed. Some pieces feel like experimental first drafts, while others are polished and complete; as a result, the Festival seems to have a split identity … sometimes it’s a safe workshop and sometimes it’s an audacious assemblage of brilliant premieres.
This Festival has become a fixed part of the New York City musical scene. But it’s not as well known as it should be. The audiences are always smaller than they should be. Yet this music is an important part of our 21st century world. It is global. It offers new ways of integrating music into our daily lives, assuring preservation of many elements of the past and connecting them to the future in new ways. It celebrates innovation and invention in artistic expression, affirming creativity and imagination as necessary and inspiring components of 21st century living.
[N. B. Two companion essay/reviews present discussions of particular pieces of music and individual performances.]
New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival 2018 (21 concerts; July 16 – July 22, 2018)
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, between Pitt and Willett Streets, in Manhattan
For more information: http://www.nycemf.org
Running time: Approximately 90 minutes with one intermission for each concert