Complicit Artificiality: Sarah Plum and Hal Grossman in “Parameters of Sound” at Spectrum

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2013 by David St.-Lascaux

October 3, 2013

IMAGINE BEING ABLE TO HEAR MUSIC for the first time, or hearing music with new ears, and a new mind. I hadn’t really thought of that, or thought that possible, until last night, when I think I maybe did. The musicians were violinists Sarah Plum and Hal Grossman, two talented exponents of new music, at Glenn Cornett’s Spectrum, a subtle New York new music venue. The program was a set, all of a kind, of nine recent compositions. Several of the composers were present, and one – the Juilliard’s Mari Kimura – even pushed “play” to activate her Max Runtime file on the center-stage Mac.

Plum opened the set with Christopher Adler’s “Jolie Sphinx,” followed by Grossman playing Sidney Corbett’s “Polydorus Echoes.” These modernist works were followed by Bjorn Berkout’s “Zing,” a rompish march-meets-Appalachian Spring, in which Grossman was accompanied by pianist Marie Blair. Next, Plum and a 13″ MacBook Pro played Jeff Herriot’s “after time: a resolution,” a magic carpet, trance-inducing étude-duet. Plum then played Christopher Burns’s beautifully entitled “come ricordi come sogni come echi” (“like memories, like dreams, like echoes”), which emotionally delivered as promised, as the amplified Plum employed glisses, chords, and planar sostenutos. In Ben Fuhrman’s spectral “The Sirens,” Plum executed pleasingly dissonant and echoic effects. In David Bohn’s “Kikaku,” Plum and Grossman seemed to impersonate a human clock experiment devised to prove the passage of time (if you were in doubt), or portamento metronomes. Sidney Boquiren’s “Ira and Lachrymæ” (“Anger and Tears”) ran the discordant risks of its titular negativity and modernist structural roots. Still, the closing notes of “Ira” were breathtaking, and exquisitely performed. In Kimura’s “Sarahal,” the Mac performed invisibly, complementing, in its affectless way, the Humans’ flawless techniques.

Reflecting on Parameters of Sound, one couldn’t help but feel that music may be stuck in the intellectual equivalent to the visual arts’s Abstract Expressionist period of hermetic obscurity, and that composers are unwittingly incorporating retrogressive elements into their work. Meanwhile, it was supremely ironic that the two most humanistic compositions – Herriot’s “after time” and Kimura’s “Sarahal” (named for the musicians, not Stanley Kubrick’s malevolent computer) – featured an electronic “musician” playing an electronic part (and in Herriot’s case, perfect fifths). These and the amplified others opened my ears to one more thing – something that’s been lately troubling me about the arts, including music: the uncritical civilizational complicity that bedevils so many contemporary works. For example, a recent essay by a dismal scientist (i.e., an economist), blithely described the world’s demising or demised agrarian economy – which was the human mode for thousands of years (i.e, until a hundred years ago in the West) – as hardly missed (crushed by the scientific power of glyphosate and GMOs), even as he glossed the catastrophic effects of the persisting Industrial Revolution (only two hundred years old and still wreaking exponentially increasing havoc), while remotely observing that the Information Revolution will have devastating effects on workers (which economists call “tradable” “units”). Musical workers might take note.

So-called new music has, for its entire Debussyan, Légerean, Duchampian and Cagean existence reflected the major themes of modernity: urbanization, industrialization, technocracy, conflict and alienation, as well as the safely intellectual, reliable fallback to non-verbalizable formalism. Looking back at Italy’s Futurist polemicist Filippo Tommasso Marinetti, who celebrated imperialism and war, we literally see the sounds of unapologetic mechanical violence on the page. The pre-World War I (and pre-Russian revolutionary) composer Igor Stravinsky enthusiastically incorporated the romantic staccato of the machine age into his work. “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” grid artist Piet Mondrian candidly observed that “the life of modern, cultured man is gradually turning away from the natural: life is becoming more and more abstract.” In 1944, Aaron Copland celebrated America’s receding rural past in Appalachian Spring, obsolescing in advance of the masscultural devolution of America’s post-World War II suburbanization. John Cage, far from being a positive force in experimentation, considered his works to be celebrations of philosophical randomness and of boredom as virtue (his framing) and an intentional modus vivendi. Rather than imply and thus communicate the miracles of human hearing and music (through absence), humor, and awe at human ingenuity, the unempathic Cage intended 4′33″ to be a noxious, nihilistic gesture. Visual artist “A” students Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were quick studies.

I’m not saying you can’t include electronics in performance (and yes, I’ve seen plenty of music performed electronically). What I’m observing is that today’s composers seem not to grasp the symbolic motifs, signifying agendas and cultural baggage embedded in their works. In 2013, Arnold Schoenberg’s atonality and Steve Reich’s minimalism aren’t merely formal building blocks: They’re freighted with histories and associations. Electronic music, especially performed live with logos abounding (and our dreams are invaded by softly glowing, ghostly “Apples®,” our thigh pockets by phantom subsonic vibrations), is likewise impossible to separate from the larger context of humanity’s continuing capitulation to, and subsumption into what the activist Christopher Hedges calls the “electronic hallucination.” When a set of nine compositions by as many different composers sounds so consistently monogeneric, and so replete with Mondrian’s predicted artificiality (acknowledging that music is necessarily and definitively artificial, and instruments themselves mechanical), one yearns for a new kind of music – music for humans, as opposed to, say, for machines, or that reflects digested mechanistic canons and incremental novelty for their own sakes. I’m not talking about whale songs (although I’ll bet we’re not far away from a future in which people don’t know that there were creatures called @birds, which could #sing); I’m talking about questioning our progress-assuming, increasingly artificial culture, whose audible artefacts directly evolved from music that celebrated its antecedents. Parameters, while laudably conveying intellectual sophistication and hypnotic sonic aesthetics, seemed to demonstrate, most of all, the composers’ unawareness of how thoroughly they (and we, by admissive extension) have been co-opted by such seductive and unrelenting forces, Henry Ford’s and Thomas Edison’s resource-rapacious and environmentally destructive replicative and electronic grandchildren, lately anthropomorphized as IBM’s gameshow savant Watson and Twitter’s blissfully oblivious mascot Larry.

Spectrum’s ambience undoubtedly contributed to this listener’s compromised experience, which bears note. The venue’s name apparently derives from its entirely distracting atmospheric lighting, which bathes the performers in ever-changing colors. Not being synesthetic, I ended up listening with my eyes closed, thus trading the visual pleasure of watching the musicians play for the respite of not being subjected to the proprietor’s eccentric affectation. Because the performance was so stellar, and Spectrum’s commitment to new music so singularly praiseworthy and unique, I’ll try to get used to it.

In juxtaposing the human and the electronic, Parameters also triggered perverse imaginings of compositional excess, and cause-for-optimism residual humanity. While the synthetic component of the two electronically-inclusive pieces represented a sort of benignly distortive, derivative continuo, the composers were sensibly diplomatic in not giving the computer a single solo, begging the question of what a piece in which the humans played second fiddles (or a piece composed for two computers and an open-bar human) might sound and psychologically feel like to the audience and performers. So speculated, I don’t have to tell you how mind-opening it was to vide two human musicians playing with sensitivity and verve, flanking a ϕ#©|<ing computer on a pedestal to form an unintentional, if inescapably eloquent tableau semi-vivant. No! Don’t let the machine win!

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