Vol. 33 Issue 2 Reviews
Seoul International Computer Music Festival 2008

Seoul Performing Arts Center, Seoul, South Korea, 9-12 November 2008.

Reviewed by Jeremy C. Baguyos
Omaha, Nebraska, USA

The Seoul International Computer Music Festival 2008 (SICMF) presented by the Korean Electroacoustic Music Society (KEAMS) 9-12 November 2008 can be distinguished from other conferences and festivals by its unique four-day schedule. Although the Jayu Theater at the Seoul Performing Arts Center was available to SICMF for four full days, SICMF opted, like it has in the past, to present only one concert for each day of the festival. This is very different from many electronic music festivals where three to four concerts are forced to fit into one day.  SICMF’s approach has many advantages and these advantages were made evident in the quality of the performances. Rather than allocate the normal 20-25 minutes of rehearsal and technical preparation per composition, which is standard practice for most such festivals, SICMF allotted most composers and performers at least an hour.  Not only does this facilitate technical preparation, it relieves a lot of the stress normally associated with rushed rehearsals. The end result is an optimal environment where composers and performers are afforded every opportunity to achieve the most ideal version of their work. There is one obvious disadvantage to this arrangement and that is lack of presentation time to be more inclusive. Out of a pool of 80 submitted works from the international electroacoustic community, only 15 could be accepted. However, all composers, performers, and concert organizers are after the same ultimate goal, concert performances of high quality, and this was achieved through the choice of limiting the numbers of concerts and increasing the amount of resources for adequate preparation.

Another notable distinction about SICMF was in the talent and dedication of the performers. This conference was not just another gig for the performers, nor was it an outlet for new music specialists who couldn’t find a place to perform otherwise.  The SICMF performers were passionate about the craft of electronic music performance, have mastered the techniques that are required to perform electronic music, and had prepared themselves and their music for performance at the SICMF.

Opening the festival was an innocuously effective tape work Trailer for UBIK composed by Jeffrey Trevino. Using everyday sounds of technology from facsimile machines, radio ads, and other vestiges of technology, the sounds were processed beyond recognition and smartly diffused throughout the hall. One lone speaker, unattached to the sound system and with a spotlight projected upon it, set the tone for the festival. This work, as well as the rest of the works to follow in the festival utilized electronic performers whether human or electronic in its pursuit of academic computer music.

Deep Sound by Mi-Jung Kim is a programmatic work depicting the 2007 oil contamination accident of the Tae-An peninsula in Korea. The work utilizes a sparse, pointillistic texture that invites careful attention and awareness to the electronic sounds as well as the careful plucked and bowed articulations effortlessly performed on the geomungo by Sunny Lee. Gang Gang by Ge-Suk Yeo is a series of four sound poems synchronized with terse black and white animation symbolizing calligraphy. The esoterically structured work provided the audience with a formidable challenge, if not already versed in the language of computer music.

Ed Martin’s Flurry for soprano saxophone and tape was performed with precision and grace, and the electronic part showcased Mr. Martin’s evocative facility in a programmatic work that nostalgically reflects upon memories of childhood winters. Tae Hong Park evoked the American vernacular in his fixed media work ViPer for violin, percussion, and multi-channel tape.  Like Mr. Park’s Bass X Sung for electric bass and computer, ViPer incorporates elements of American popular music as a starting point, but quickly departs and expands its vocabulary and modes of expression. This high-impact work provided a rousing ending to the first recital of the festival. Although the concert required some cumbersome technical configurations, the preparation time afforded by the festival facilitated an eloquent and seamless concert production and an enhanced enjoyment for both audience and artists.

Concert II focused on works associated with a consciousness of Korean electronic musical style. Shift No. 1 by the Matrix Duo was performed by the core members of the Matrix Duo, Byong-oh Ko and Sangbong Nam, along with the members of Su:m. According to the SICMF program notes, the “Matrix Duo strives to shift from previous art to new art through electronic music. Shift No. 1 is the first piece created for the project. In the piece, Matrix Duo experiments with new possibilities for Korean traditional music.” It was obvious that the musicians were comfortable with this arrangement. The zither performers on ajaeng and gayageum were perfectly in tune with each other and played with coordinated ensemble as they punctuated the sparse texture with intermittently plucked notes at the octave.  The computers processed the bowed electronic haegeum and the piri effectively. The overall effect was simultaneously meditative and hypnotic. Underneath the texture of Su:m was the subtle processing of the Matrix Duo. They demonstrated musical discipline by holding back processes and slowly letting them develop with the performers. By the end, they were utilizing 8-channel special effects and guiding the work to its logical and climactic conclusion.

Following Shift No. 1 was the Buddhist-inspired In Biel by Chung Juhee. In Biel is an atmospheric 4-channel tape work utilizing mostly ambient sounds. The transitions between different sounds and processes were eloquent and subtle. Occasionally, a transient sound like the intentional popping and crackling of low-end speaker noise would punctuate the texture enough to heighten the sense of awareness of the underlying powerful monody of the electronics.

Kinetic Sound for computer-generated music by Eunhwa Lee was realized with a variety of tools like Common Lisp, Csound, and Pro Tools.  The work was an effective electronic reworking of tonal pitch relationships as well as an exploration of kinetic movement of sound sources. Pei-Yu Shi’s Gedicht vom Wind des Herbstes for saxophone, piano, percussion, and tape utilizes a complex set-up that would only be practical at a conference with ample set-up time. Laced with performer vocalisms, much of the work relies on a quick succession of short durations of sound with fast attacks, fast releases, short sustains, and quick indiscernible releases.

Jongwoo Yim’s Rupture for string quartet and electroacoustics is an aggressively interactive work with a high degree of complexity. The four members of the string quartet have played together before because they maintained an impressive coordinated ensemble and were able to compensate for the dry hall.  The string playing was very aggressive as demanded by the score. The quartet had adequate time to rehearse with each other and with the electronics, and this luxury allowed for a stunning interactive performance.

Concert III presented the most compelling works of the festival. David Bitthel’s The President Has His Photograph Taken for audiovisual media and live actor is a vivid fixed media work that borders on illusion. This riveting piece was carefully paced and captured the attention of the audience by always making them wonder in anticipation. Seong-Joon Moon’s In the great green room is a highly activated soundscape with a very powerful, albeit disturbing, recontextualization of an otherwise innocent childhood bedtime story.

Two other works on this concert were stunning due to the craft of electronic composition that the composers demonstrated.  Yu-Chung Tseng’s Birds, Winds, Rains is a carefully crafted work utilizing the vocabulary of one who has been very studious in their study of other composers’ works and is steeped in the traditions of electronic music. The other studied work is Samyama by Alberto Frizzo. This Csound work achieved complexity through simplicity in limiting the processes to additive synthesis, subtractive synthesis, and ring-modulation. The result is a stimulating work of craft and detail.

The young composer Min Kyu Kim showed talent and promise in Deux Regards for cello and tape, and cellist Ju Yeon Song performed the work convincingly with expression and studied accuracy.  Miserere, a tape work by Seungyon-Seny Lee is a work that effectively utilizes the electronic music medium to convey personal revelations and elevates them to higher levels of expression and universal communication.

The concert climaxed and ended with Joao Pedro Oliveira’s Timshel for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and tape. This larger-than-life work echoed larger-than-life themes contemplating human existence. The performers communicated the composer’s grand vision with fidelity and aplomb thanks to the larger-than-life concert production afforded by limiting the numbers of concerts during the festival.

Concert IV, the final event of SICMF 2008, featured the new music ensemble Shadow Play, with Peter Furniss on clarinet, Robin Michael on cello, and Sarah Nicolls on piano. Members of Shadow Play performed all works as well as having a significant part in commissioning or curating the works. Again, SICMF is a festival that departs from the model of a composer-collective concert.  An entire concert was dedicated not to a group of unknown electronic music, but rather, an established, internationally renowned new music performance ensemble is entrusted with selecting compositions. Shadow Play has dedicated its career to new music and whatever work they curate, commission, and perform is work they will champion, not just play. With that kind of passion, the results can only be better than the aforementioned model of composer-centered concerts and their drive-by performers. Concert IV is what would happen if you let performers drive the programming.

The most fascinating performance of the festival was pianist Sarah Nicolls’s performance of Jonathan Green’s Piece for piano and lamp for piano, lamp, and live electronics. The work explores the relationship between physical gesture and musical gesture through an improvisation environment driven by a Webcam detecting the movement of the pianist’s hands. Ms. Nicolls showed no trepidation in realizing this difficult work and communicated the gestures of the electronics through her refined skill as a performer.

Peter Furniss provided another highlight in his performance of Dialogue de l’ombre double by Pierre Boulez.  This work is the classic conversation between live performer and fixed media with live performer and electronics taking turns in their musical statements and staying out of each other’s way. Mr. Furniss excelled in carrying out the conversation by matching inflections and pacing of the tape and maintaining matching volumes.  Special commendation should be allocated to the sound engineers of SICMF who helped Mr. Furniss achieve this end. The tireless cellist, Robin Michael, performed Cello Counterpoint for cello and tape by Steve Reich. The work involves multiple layers of repetition in the electronics. With static development it is easy for a listener to get lost.  Mr. Michael, however, was an anchor and delineated a coherent line and created clarity for the overall texture of the work.

The audience demographics of SICMF consisted of startlingly young Koreans who had no real connection to the festival other than as members of the ticket-purchasing public. Composer attendance was not mandatory for this festival, and most of the invited foreign composers could not attend in person. In addition there is no composer participation fee and lodging is provided for international composers who can attend in person. At SICMF, coercing composers to attend the festival, making them pay for their own performer, and asking the composer to pay an attendance fee to hear their work performed is unnecessary. There is enough interest in the general public and enough support from public agencies and private sources to prevent the festival from becoming a composer-contrived concert that wouldn’t exist otherwise if not subsidized by the collective of composers who participate. The majority of the SICMF audience was the general public, not the composers included in the festival’s programming. All SICMF performances were at the Jayu Theater, venue for experimental works, at the Seoul Performing Arts Center.