Vol. 41 Issue 3 Reviews
Ian Fredericks: Sunrise: The Acousmatic Music of Ian Fredericks

Double compact disc, 2016, SRCD02, available from Sidereal Records; ian_shanahan@hotmail.com.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

CD CoverBeing unfamiliar with the music of the Australian composer Ian Fredericks, I sat down to read the liner notes from the recently released, posthumous, double cd recording entitled Sunrise: The Acousmatic Music of Ian Fredericks. The extensive liner notes begin with a brief, incomplete, autobiographical note, written a year or so before the composer’s death, that outlines some very unusual, humorous, and tortuous, personal trajectories rife with Oedipal content. Fredericks starts out by saying: “I was born quite young in Sydney Australia on the first day of December in the year One Thousand Nine Hundred and Forty Three AD.” He goes on to detail an early life in which the Catholic school system he attended made every effort “to beat and shame all sense of creative intelligence” out of the poor lad for thirteen long years. But in his youth he also learned to play Bach’s and Beethoven’s work for piano, and sang Gregorian Chant in Latin, and excelled in the subjects of physics, chemistry, and mathematics. After entering the University of Sydney with the aid of a Commonwealth Scholarship he began “to wallow in bravado and boozing.” He also found out that the persons he though were his parents were instead his garndparents, and his sister was in fact his mother! This was all due to Fredericks being the result of what he called an “illegitimate” union between his mother and “a mongrel dog of a father who went and got himself killed.” I include this information to provide a clue as to the colorful personality behind the music contained on this collection.
Fredericks founded the Sydney University Experimental Sound Studio (SUESS) in the late 1970s and taught electronic music and served as the Technical Officer in the Department of Music. He also founded and performed with a contemporary music improvisation group known as Level 4, and electroacoustic collective called Watt. Most significantly, Fredericks authored his own compositional toolkit, a suite of computer programs called Iansmuse, which he began working on in 1986. Using Iansmuse, Fredericks was able to interpolate parametric data between predefined points in time, create sounds from additive synthesis and frequency modulation engines, and import prerecorded sounds.

In addition to Fredericks’ autobiographical essay, the 24-page booklet that comes with this double cd contains program notes for the 14 compositions contained therein, and an introduction and article by Ian Shanahan, the executive producer of the cd, that describes the formation of SUESS and Fredericks’ scientific work history, which included a job at the Atomic Energy Commission’s Lucas Heights facility. The 14 compositions from this collection were composed over a 23-year period between 1978 and 2001, the year of the composer’s death, and contain a variety of working methods and approaches to making electroacoustic music.

The first track, entitled Sunrise, was composed in 1986. Like the other works in this collection, it showcases meticulous attention paid to spatialization and depth effects. It also contains simple, antiphonal, call and response materials, and sine waves made to sound birdlike through the use of amplitude modulation and glissandi. After about one minute and 30 seconds a rather ominous, harmonic drone gradually enters underneath the antiphonal materials. The drone layer is embellished with small, timbral perturbations as it becomes louder, taking over the foreground. Concomitant with this textural shift is a greater emphasis on microtonal detuning, which creates a palpable sense of beating in the ear of the listener.

We also hear sharply attacked percussive sounds similar in timbre to the Flex-A-Tone, wherein reiterated attacks trigger glissandi, due to changes in pressure on the metal plates. The frequent use of this timbral device, which provided a continual changing pitch-shifting palette, was a compelling aspect of this piece. After the textural build-up begins to dissipate the glissandi change direction, descending rather than ascending, as they did in the early parts of this piece. At the end the piece fades to a low frequency, single tone.

The second piece, Violins in Space (1999), contained sampled string sounds played with heavy bow pressure, sul ponticello. The sampled materials are repeated and transformed rhythmically, dynamically, and spatially. Some of the repetition sounded too coarse or obvious, a situation that was not helped out by the fragmented episodic form used.

Mother Piece, the third piece, was composed in 1978-1979, using several multi-track reel-to-reel tape recorders. Fredericks recorded a female vocalist singing phonemes from the word ‘mother’ and used these recordings to forge a drone-like texture marked by siren-like glissandi, and eventually interrupted by small bell sounds.

The fourth piece, Spirals (1998), begins with an unstable sine wave that sweeps up the harmonic series. This is followed by arppegiated, ostinato pitches that slowly increase in speed, until being abruptly cut off. In this piece, and others on this recording, one can hear the ‘artificial’ nature of the cut-offs used, in the sense that the silent moments drop below the ‘natural’ noise floor, as previously occurred in tape music during spliced sections that used leader tape. This would seem to imply that global processing techniques, such as reverb, were mostly applied before the cuts were made.

Spirals is perforated with a lot of silent moments, which produce a quality in the listener like the phenomenon known as a phosphine, or the experience of seeing light without light entering the eye, except here the mechanism of hearing is involved instead. The previously mentioned arpeggiated materials come back again and again in this piece, like the refrain in a rondo form. Notably, as the pitches increase in speed, the highest pitches move up, while those at the bottom move down. This presents an interesting, palpable bifurcation. Finally, toward the end, Fredericks combines the materials that had been sequestered until that moment.

Nine Nights is from an incomplete cycle of nine pieces that Fredericks called Death of a Dragon. This piece begins with a sustained pitch, held constant while several overtones begin to sound, Fredericks proceeds to utilize overlapping, sustained sine waves, and stacks different sets of harmonics. Nine Nights could have used more assistance in the way of processing – filtering, equalization, and modulation. Nevertheless, there is something historically determinate about the sound of pure, stacked sine waves. However, the historical period referred to by this technique came years before 1999, the year in which this piece was composed. Thus, the effect may be described as anachronistic. Whatever the case, about halfway through the piece this effect breaks down, leaving more gritty and piercing sounds in its wake.

The sixth track, Talisman (2000), is a 22 second fragment that was intended to be part of the aforementioned Death of a Dragon cycle. The music uses an equal-tempered, 18-tone per octave scale, along with a nice mix of amplitude modulation. According to the composer “the mood is one of quiet moral and physical strength.”

Track seven, Death of a Dragon, was composed in 1999, in memory of Professor Peter Platt, one of Fredericks’ primary mentors and colleagues, to whom the composer applied the moniker dragon. Fredericks understands the term dragon as “an age-old symbol of the highest spiritual essence, embodying wisdom, strength and the divine power of transformation” (from The Art of War by Sun Tzu, quoted in the liner notes). Large portions of this piece consist of low frequency pitches that slowly pan back and forth between the right and left channels, as they descend an octave, over the course of two minutes and 15 seconds. This piece sounds like it includes sampled materials, fragmented or heard in time-stretched chunks, or synthetic sounds made to sound ‘real’ by utilizing dynamic techniques such as portamento. These sporadically come to the foreground in the form of vocal, wailing-like sounds. This sound is repeated, unaltered, in order to provoke “a sense of the inevitability and immutableness of death.” We also hear loud scratching sounds that have a violent quality, and are programmatically intended to represent “the dying breath.”

The title for the eighth piece, Maze of Glass (2001), comes from Fredericks’ research into the Arthurian legend, and is the place where King Arthur is buried. Maze of Glass is also Fredericks’ last completed work and was realized using his Iansmuse system. This piece begins with a series of sine waves that trail off with respect to both frequency and amplitude, similar to the Doppler effect. About a minute and 30 seconds in, loud bursts of staccato notes are introduced, with the last notes in each series being sustained, becoming part of the background. At the halfway point there is a brief pause and the texture changes dramatically to a series of filtered, percussive sounds that periodically speed up and slow down. Overall, Maze of Glass contains a compendium of Frederick’s electroacoustic and programming techniques, and is one of the best pieces on this collection.

The last piece on the first cd, Lament for the Dragon, was composed in 2000 and is supposed to represent a universal lament, signifying “the passing of the guidance of wisdom from the young warrior’s ken and the learning to deal with profound loss.” Like many of the other pieces in this collection, this work employs overlapping sine wave sustains that move around in a virtual, three-dimensional space. Here though, Fredericks utilizes flanging, filtering, and delay techniques to achieve a sonic texture reminiscent of an urban traffic jam, along with poignant Doppler frequency shifts.

The second cd contains just five works but three are close to 20 minutes in length; one of which is an ambitious, four-movement work. Avalon, the first piece on the second cd, is another work in Fredericks’ incomplete Death of a Dragon cycle. The program notes refer to another story from the Arthurian legend, demonstrating the age-old battle between good and evil. The composer’s personal interpretation of the story refers to “an ageing person confronting the sins of their early life, battling personal misgivings, and final making peace with their God.” Avalon contains sounds that are more variegated and processed than many of the other works from this collection. The flow of events is also much more aggressive and fast-paced than the other works. At three minutes and 21 seconds it seems like a mere torso. One might wonder what Fredericks would have done with the same techniques but in a longer format.

Composed in 1983, the second composition, Viable Alternative, is an 18 minute and 48 second tour de force of sampling techniques, originally composed to be a radiophonic sound-drama. Viable Alternative was created from a collection of broadcast recordings, including the famous broadcast that described humankind’s first steps on the moon, which Fredericks describes as “the most profound utterance ever to be broadcast.” The recordings were distorted and altered in various ways, and combined with other sounds such as musical sequences. The title makes reference to the cold war rhetoric that nuclear war was a ‘viable alternative’ to peace. The thorough combination of prerecorded materials and synthesis methods, as well as the use of very chaotic textures, makes this piece a unique contribution to this collection.

Some Quiet Graveyard, composed in 1984, was inspired by “thoughts of the awesomeness of the universe.” The precariousness and insignificance of our planet are further described in the liner notes, which characterize our situation as “hanging raggedly off an insignificant star in a minor. Whatever the impetus for this piece, this track contains richly endowed timbral palettes created from what the composer calls his “continuous dynamic additive synthesis system.” This system ran on an Apple II computer and used a joystick to continuously vary the levels of the harmonics from a family of sine waves, and a foot pedal for spatial manipulation. The variety of real-time performance controls contributed to the sense of the sounds propagating naturally and organically. This piece stands as a fine display of Fredericks’ work with an ‘embellished’ computer environment, and provides testimony to the wonderful things that are possible from what we might now consider to be meager means.

The fourth track, Requiem for a Planet (1994-1995), is a four-movement work in the form of the Dies Irae, which was used for centuries in the Roman liturgy for Requiem Masses. It was realized using the composer’s PC-based workstation, which was interestingly employed to synthesize both spoken and sung voices. These voices were then combined with the Windows speech synthesis engine known as Text Assist. One major challenge for Fredericks in this piece was to make the software’s phonetic structures more responsive to Latin words and pronunciation. Another interesting facet of this piece was that it was later (in 1998) used for dance choreography, which prompted the composer to develop two new components of Iansmuse: Score, and a choreographing program called Dancer.

Requiem for a Planet begins slow paced, with a series of vocal sustains that sound realistic at times, but at other times very synthetic, like a warning siren. The intervallic content includes minor thirds and major and minor seconds. Together with the slow tempo these intervals suggest a dirge-like atmosphere. This changes to a frightening quality (especially when listening with headphones) as we hear a loud, clearly synthetic, voice proclaim the Dies Irae. The effect could be described as a dark, sinister counterpart to the happy-go-lucky vocal timbre that Max Mathews used in his pivotal 1961 recording of Bicycle Built for Two (Daisy Bell). The voices are gradually transformed and culminate in a section, toward the middle, where we hear typical sounds from a rainstorm. This is eventually replaced by sine waves, followed by more synthetic voices. The content and synthesis techniques used in this track were promising. Unfortunately, the recording is plagued by an inadvertent low frequency hum, perhaps caused by ungrounded equipment in the recording studio.

The last piece on this collection is entitled Starmist and was composed between 1997-1998. Like many of the composer’s electroacoustic compositions it contains thematically unrelated sections that simply follow one another. While this may seem like something novice composers do, in the hands of Fredericks it becomes a clever method of concatenation in which the energy of one section is resolved or continued in a subsequent section, without the assistance of an obvious thematic connection. According to the composer, Starmist “is a musical story of creation… in terms of a combination of the Biblical account of the universe and a scientific account.” So the collection ends with a piece about the very beginning of our universe, foregrounding the composer’s own quirky sense of religiosity with his humanistic, scientific background.

This two cd collection of Ian Fredericks’ electroacoustic work, was a labor of love, brought to life by Fredericks’ former student and colleague Ian Shanahan, who served as its executive producer. Fredericks’ electroacoustic work strikes a balance between formal method and convincing music, in which we find a significant attention to spatial and temporal detail. Clearly present in all these works is a joyous celebration of the unique challenges and strategies of composing electroacoustic music. Fredericks is not simply computerizing, or electrifying, essentially acoustic compositional attributes. He is fully working within an electroacoustic medium, wherein his ideas require the technologies he employs. The results are sometimes uneven but well worth hearing.