Sonic Explorations was a self-styled 'mini-festival' staged over the weekend at the ever-more impressive King's Place by the London Sinfonietta and Sound Intermedia (a duo linked with the Sinfonietta who are at the centre of the field of electroacoustic music in Britain).
Jonathan Harvey and Jane Williams (the Sinfonietta's Head of Artistic Planning) curated the festival, sharing cherished and newer repertoire from the cutting edge of electronic music with London audiences over three days of concerts. At the same time, the curators sought to educate and inform those audiences about the vortical streams of technological innovation that drive this music, through a series of lectures and workshops.
Though the focus was on 'academic' electronica, the blurred boundary between that academic strain, and related activities in the underground field, was made clear both through the music itself and in the lectures and the multimedia contexts of the performances. That collapsing of boundaries will be explored even further later in the week at the same venue, with the John Metcalfe curated Beyond the Loop festival.
Friday evening of Sonic Explorations proved to be wholly fascinating. The evening began with an informative lecture, given by IRCAM's Director of the Department for the Coordination of Scientific and Musical Research, Andrew Gerzso, about the institute's history, facilities, and its pioneering (ongoing) work in the field of software development. Gerzso spoke interestingly about programmers and composers working in fruitful couplings, trying to translate aesthetic ideas into logistical reality (for instance with the development of the O-Max program, which responds generatively to free improvisation, or in the work on programs for the orchestration of complex, spectral sounds). The discussion ended with the playing of Jonathan Harvey's impressively transparent, but never uninteresting, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, a work developed at IRCAM in 1980.
The second event of the evening took place in the larger Hall One, and it focused in the main on more recent works that have emerged from IRCAM. The concert opened, though, with Kaija Saariaho's breathtaking NoaNoa, for flute and electronics, composed at the institute in 1992. The work focuses in on certain flute mannerisms, breathy sustained notes, vocal interpolation, wild appoggiaturas, and exaggerates them through repetition within a heightened emotional tenor. The electronics (sensitively controlled by Sound Intermedia) deepened and stretched the harmonic and timbral aspects of these gestures, chorusing certain aspects, countering others. The flute part was given with a wonderful sense of focus by Michael Cox. Cox invested the part with an arresting charge that saturated the extrapolations of the vibrant electronics with an interpellated humanity.
Hector Parra's I have come like a butterfly into the hall of human life followed, here being given its world premiere. The piece is for electronics alone, a fact that normally leads to an element of separation in concert between audience and music, but here, following the encouraging words of Andrew Burke in his introduction, and thanks also to the loud volumes and dark ambience of the hall, the separation became rather a space for contemplation, a space where the music could make its case without visual or even personal obstruction. And though Parra's piece was less nuanced, more blitzing than the Saariaho, his twisted and fizzed out procession and processing of barely-recognisable organic sounds into an intriguing stop-start rhetoric of command provided much to admire. John Orford on bassoon closed the concert with a startling performance of Roque Rivas pile-driving Conical Intersect. Pitting Merzbow-like harsh noise washes of electronica against the pleading, fervent lines of the bassoon, and culminating in stunning vocal appeals from Orford, the performance clearly signalled a composer working vividly in the wilds of screamo-electronics.
The last concert of the evening was entitled New Work, New Sonics. Once more, the collection of works showcased different approaches to electronics, live or otherwise, alongside variegated sonic palettes. Dai Fujikura's K's Ocean had the solo trombonist (an accomplished Byron Fulcher) cueing different samples with a foot operated pedal. Joćo Pedro Oliveira's Beyond sets up a frenetic field of activity between the three instrumentalists (Oliver Coates on cello, John Constable on piano, and Mark van de Wiel on clarinet) and the virtual player, the tape part, touching off Kontact, but with a more idiosyncratic gestural and formal style, to bring the evening to an exciting close.
More than the other pieces tonight, I think, the remaining two took the quality and origins of the source sound as their driving formal forces, not transformations of that sound as such, with both placing us in a transplanted virtual space where other rooms and other times displaced the fastness of the hall. ?ke Parmerud's Crystal Counterpoint built an arresting metacinema out of sampled crowd sounds and piercing wine glass echoes. The shifting senses of place of that piece were developed more lucidly by David Fennessy in his wonderful The Room is the Resonator. Taking the acoustic space of a sampled German underground railway station, placing inside that space the warm sustained cello notes and dyads from Coates, and infusing the whole with a droning recording of a long, held harmonium chord from a room in Aberdeen, Fennessy gently coaxes a lyrical trace-world where the security of the now is in abeyance, but sweet in that abeyance, gladly forfeited for the sound experience washing over us. At times reminiscent of Jon Hassell, Andrea Centazzo, Ernst Reijseger, even John Luther Adams, The Room is the Resonator made its points clearly, vividly, and warmly.
Photo: Andrew Gerzso
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