Vol. 41 Issue 4 Reviews

2017 New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival at the Abrons Arts Center, New York City

Reviewed by Andres Lewin-Richter
Barcelona, Spain

NYCEMF EventThis year’s New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival (NYCEMF) was an impressive and very well organized event. The festival took place in three separate spaces: a large theater, an underground space for video productions, and an experimental theater for the performance of fixed media pieces. This spatial dispersion allowed for a smooth and continuous sequence of sound checks, rehearsals, and performances, with just enough time between pieces for applause and resetting. This review discusses the first part of the festival, which took place at the Abrons Arts Center in Manhattan. There was also a second part that took place during three days in mid-July at National Sawdust in Brooklyn.

In this first part of the festival about 220 pieces by almost as many composers were performed in 21 concerts of around 120 minutes each. In a way this festival felt like a continuation of the legendary Bourges International Festival of Experimental Music, and is a more settled event than the International Computer Music Conference, where the efforts of the different organizing country committees try to fit their submissions into a single year event.

The hand and experience of the NYCEMF’s main organizer, Hubert Howe, was present in the programming and execution of events, which went smoothly thanks to a staff of dedicated technicians, performers, and volunteers. It is also worth mentioning that each of the venues was equipped with an excellent octophonic system.

The concerts featured a wide range of genres, styles, and formats. There were 30 fixed media, electroacoustic pieces with clear ‘musical’ intent, 108 fixed media, sound art works, 56 pieces with instruments and/or voices, 33 video pieces, two instrumental pieces featuring the NYU Ensemble using scores with video projection, and 6 live laptop performances. It is noteworthy that more women artists are taking an interest in electroacoustic music. There were 28 pieces by woman and half of these were by composers and performers from the U.S.A.

The overall programming trend was clear. Compared with previous festivals we heard less pure ‘music’, and more sound art and improvisation through live laptop performances, and synthesizer or electronic equipment used in recorded performances.There was also an increased emphasis on effects and hardware and software development. In the ‘musical’ pieces category it is worth mentioning the rhythmic piece Night Study 2 by Felipe Otondo, the effective textural atmosphere of Structures to Earth by Christiane Strothmann, and Körper by Antonio D'Amato. Alone View was also a standout, especially given the fact that it was composed by the young high school student Michael Gaspari.

In the electroacoustic music category there were many sound art pieces. These composers seemed interested in discovering their own surroundings, at home, at work, their landscape, urban noises, and the ecology or phenomena where sound features as a distinguishing factor of location. This is due to the fact that nowadays good quality portable recorders are readily available and easy to use, just like smartphones. This allows for the possibility of recording sonic snapshots at any moment. The point is then to create an intelligible sequence of sounds that suggest to the listener a sense of place and time, what one might describe as an audio film.

Among the pieces worth mentioning are: Age by John Nichols III, which featured loud and abrasive, colorful materials, Gilles Gobeil’s Des temps oublies, a very Canadian radio-art concept piece based on a story about Franz Liszt and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, featuring delicate sonorities, Pablo Garcia Valenzuela’s No Rayados, a portrait of the Mexican Revolution with an impressive usage of steam train recordings, and Rikhardur H. Fridriksson’s Postcards from the North and South, which I would describe as an imaginary city landscape I sound. Two compositions: Nathan Bowen’s Rift and José Manuel Berenguer’s On Nothing, used the same type of development techniques to suggest a social protest sequence.

One of the greatest assets of this festival is, no doubt, the inclusion of excellent instrumentalists dedicated to contemporary music, mostly from the New York City area. Many have participated in ICMC conferences and are conversant with fixed media or real-time pieces. The performers included: tarogatò and clarinet player Esther Lamneck, pianist Markus Kaitila who performed Joan Pedro Oliveira’s baroquesounding Titanium, bass clarinetist Marianne Gythfeldt, who played Mikel Kuehn’s Rite of Passage,and Natalie Magana, who played flute in Nathaniel Haering’s Cimmerian Isolation. Violinist Maja Cerar performed in Maija Hynninen’s ...sicut aurora procedit, which could have been a captivating piece but was too soft and a bit too long given its material. Pianist Keith Kirchoff played Martim Galvao’s For Four, which was a minimalist piece that used a compelling synchronization of events. Cellist Madeleine Shapiro performed Hanae Azum’sa’s In the Bay II, which employed a balanced combination of instrument and seascape sounds. Finally, it was a good idea to include Kaija Saariaho’s Tag des Jahrs for chorus and fixed media, which was expertly performed by the C4 Choral Ensemble.

A few works hardly had any electroacoustic accompaniment, and/or poor quality Max patches, but demonstrated good composition techniques for the acoustic, instrumental parts. I wonder how these pieces were selected for this festival. Almost all of the laptop pieces and performances lacked musicality. For some, there was too much improvisation using trivial material, for others the works seemed more like demonstrations of computational possibilities than musical compositions.

Many composers think that making a video work is like composing an electroacoustic piece, since the current software is so easy to use. But the results uniformly show that there is a lack of ‘vision’. Music requires one way of proceeding, while images require another. Sounds may change rapidly but images need additional time to take effect, otherwise the experience becomes subliminal or tiresome. The resultant piece will contain either a repetitive or banal sense of development. Since all the composer’s effort is concentrated on the visuals, sound becomes secondary. The audience is fascinated by the image, effectively making the sound subliminal, except when it is loud or irritating.

In my estimation, visual artists do a better job of working with video than composers, whose training is, after all, in sound. Take for example Diego Garro’s Tacto or Claudia Robles-Angel’s Hinein. Both videos showcase a masterful approach to working with images, with a lot of detail, subtlety, and exquisite superimpositions. Both works also contain an effective use of electroacoustic sound, which, simply put, fits very well with the image. Unfortunately, in the case of Tacto the performance suffered from the lack of expression in the composer’s own voice as he read the text.

Two interesting pieces, Gil Dori’s Linea_Punto and Frederick Gran’s Vox Terminus, used video projection to produce scores for improvisation, performed by NYU Music Ensemble. A third piece involving video projection, Put your hands together, composed by Andres Lind involving the audience in the performance.

During the festival there were also some curated sessions. The most important was sponsored by the Ramon Llull Institute of Spain, with two sessions of 50 minutes each. The first session featured Scratch by the Morphosis Duo (Joan Marti-Frasquier, baritone saxophone, and Joan Bagés, electronics), and the brutal and loud a…Chillida by Mercè Capdevila. These were followed by a series of pieces interspersed with short miniatures. The result was quite chaotic. There were no pauses or moments for the definition of each to take hold. All were rendered in a very loud context, with no opportunities for rest. Fortunately, some of these miniatures were played in one of the last concerts. The second session was a more reasonable rendering of fairly recent fixed media compositions.
Diego Garro curated a video concert of students from Keele University in the U.K. All of the pieces were realized by visual artists, demonstrating a priority for the image, with sound being added later, almost as an afterthought for visual support.

There was also a concert of video pieces dedicated to the memory of composer Gary DiBenedetto who died in May 2017. This concert contained a varied set of pieces, which included DiBenedetto’s video synopsis Exploitation and Nancy Boget’s Of Wandering Forever, which featured a musical score by Hubert Howe.

One of the lowest points of the festival occurred in a lackluster concert titled New Music @ Rensselaer, which was dedicated to the memory of pioneer composer Pauline Oliveros. Unfortunately, Pauline’s spirit was a key, missing ingredient.

Six installations were also part of this festival. Notable was Rope Study by Hunter Brown, Leah Newman, and Christian Rose. This work was an interactive multimedia installation in four separate modules, three interactive audiovisual experiences, and an aerial rope performance accompanied by a projected video.

The fact that New York is a city with great cultural institutions and traditions was not obvious during the festival. It remained a restricted event, open only to participant composers and performers with very few general audience members, who were mostly friends of participants. The foreign participants attended most of the concerts. They were interested in finding out about the state of the art, meet friends, and make connections. In general, the American composers showed a limited interest toward everything except their own concert. This apathy was also present in the equally distributed, polite applause that each piece received. There was no booing even when some pieces warranted such an appreciation.

This brings me to the point of asking how the selection was done. It would seem that the foreign pieces were well scrutinized, so most of them demonstrated high aesthetic and technical standards. The American pieces suggested that irregular selection procedures were applied. There were performers on the selection committee. Did they choose pieces they already knew without taking into account qualitative aspects? In fact some of these pieces were just like student pieces, wherein first experiences and the poor treatment of software are distinguishing factors. Possibly, some foreign composers were disappointed by this aspect, expecting to hear new processes, experiences, and research results.