Electroacoustic music faces a perennial problem. As a genre, it is a celebration of sound in its myriad forms, employing technology and a composer’s imagination to transport acoustic music into an often surreal realm. Listening to an electroacoustic work is an invitation to be enveloped by a blanket of sound and to become obsessed with the detail and nuance of every passing moment. The momentary experience of a work trumps the need to define a permanent representation of it. In other words, while it has the capacity to create a sense of magic, electroacoustic music often translates poorly into a recording, the way most of us encounter music most of the time. The unfortunate consequence of this is a fertile genre being relegated to a largely obscure niche.

JACK Quartet © Henrik Olund
JACK Quartet
© Henrik Olund

Still, the magical potential of electroacoustic music was on display Thursday evening in the cavernous, dilapidated pier that is Fort Mason’s Herbst Pavilion in San Francisco. As the first concert of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players’ ambitious Sweet Thunder Festival of Electroacoustic music, the ever-fierce JACK quartet presented a daring, if imperfect, program of 21st century music.

Jonathan Harvey’s String Quartet no. 4, the most substantial work of the night, was a sort of study of wind, evolving from a dramatic gale to an uncomfortable stillness to a nourishing breeze. As the quartet scratched out angular melodic patterns in a wiry tone, its electronically processed offspring — expertly controlled by the festivals Technical Director Jaime Oliver — seemed to swirl in the air above the audience. The tension slowly subsided into near silence, punctuated by the occasional electronic blips, and then slowly, the quartet built an almost transcendent texture of harmony and processed sound. It was a culmination that ended too soon, however, and the result was something interesting yet not quite fulfilling.

Palimpsest, a world première by Kevin Ernste, took a more typical approach to combining electronics and live performance. Pre-recorded samples intermingled with music, sometimes enhancing it and occasionally adding an unnecessary layer of distraction.  When the electronics were woven into the music, as in the first and third sections of Palimpsest, the results were lush, novel textures. When John Cage’s charming voice interrupted the music with brief anecdotes on Erik Satie, though, the flow of the piece was suddenly broken. The music would have stood much better on its own, even if Cage was a hero and pioneer of electroacoustic music.

The most evocative treat of the night was String Quartet no. 1 “December” by the young composer Turgut Erçetin. By placing a performer, virtually encased in large speakers, at each corner of the audience, the composer shifts the focus away from the mundane act of performance and recasts it inward, allowing each audience member to craft their own experience. While there was never a single melody to speak of, the effect of undulating soundscape each player created in his respective corner created was of distant melodic fragments echoing in memory. The effect was a melancholic counterpart to one of John Luther Adams’ blissful ambient works.

Filling in the gaps was Natacha Diels' Nightmare for JACK (a ballet), a sort of David Lynch inspired tone poem that at once injected humor into a largely stoic program while seeming to take itself a little too seriously. The members of the JACK playfully scratched away at their muted strings, only periodically playing actual pitched notes, while various other scratchy sounds chimed in over the speakers. Some of the sounds seemed engineered to inflict physical discomfort while others were designed to elicit laughter. The combination of these sounds, along with some choreographed, uneasy movements for the performers was, not surprisingly, something like a nightmare.

Diels' Nightmare and Erçetin’s December exemplify the experience-oriented ethos of electroacoustic music. It would be impossible to encapsulate the essence of either in a permanent recording. The audience is forced to listen intently since we can only truly relive the music in memory.

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