For day two of the Sweet Thunder Electroacoustic Music Festival, the Brooklyn based International Contemporary Ensemble presented a parade of short works by some of the genre’s stalwarts as well as a few newcomers. It was a night of cacophony punctuated by moments of stillness. The eerie pier of San Francisco’s Fort Mason was again filled with the echoes of strange but wonderful sounds.
The cavernous hall itself, nestled within a converted military wharf, was an odd choice for a concert series where attention to detail is paramount. Little more than a box-shaped shack that juts a thousand feet into San Francisco Bay, Festival Pavilion, when left to its own devices, produces sonic mush. In the hands of Jaime Oliver and team, however, the space was transformed into almost an acoustic gem. The sound has become so clear that the heaters — a necessity year round in un-insulated San Francisco — have to be turned off during performances because they make too much noise.
With audience members wrapped in coats and scarves, ICE launched the concert with jolly discord of George Lewis’ Shadowgraph, 5. Like Lewis’ Artificial Life 2007 that ended the concert, Shadowgraph, 5 is a loosely composed framework for improvisation that provides a set of instructions to the performers. Neither it nor Artificial Life (2007) were conceived as electroacoustic works, so it is not surprising that the electronics, as presented, felt like uneasy late additions. For both, technology was employed to amplify the ensemble and swirl the sound among the four speaker hovering above the audience in unpredictable patterns. Lewis, a prolific inventor of digital instruments and music-generating software, has written a rich canon of electronic works, so it is odd that ICE chose two of his acoustic pieces for this festival.
Another non-electronic work disguised by amplification, Nathan Davis’ Ghostlight combines the mystical harmony of Scriabin with the mischievous playfulness of John Cage. It is a dreamy sketch for a very lightly prepared piano in which a few keys are deadened while a few others are given gong-like resonance. While Jacob Greenberg’s sensitive touch on piano added much to this truly lovely interlude, its compact duration made it seem like space filler and its predominately acoustic character made it feel out of place.
Although full of enthralling texture, Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s excerpt, Luminance, from the evening length In the Light of Air, was similarly unsatisfying mainly because there wasn’t enough of it. An exploration of evolving drones that gain a sort of static momentum over time, the music builds as if in preparation for something, but before it gets there, it ends. Maria Stankova’s battle of clicking sounds, La Bouche, was a jaunty exercise in showing off what a bass clarinet and bassoon can do without ever producing a tone, but where there could have been humor was artificial intensity.
The meatiest offerings of the concert were two deceptively simple works for solo instruments and electronics by Rand Steiger. Cyclone harnessed the rich but malleable tone of Joshua Rubin’s clarinet to sculpt both rich, low resonance that seemed to shake the steel rafters of the pier and sharp chords of high-range tones that snap in the ears like a leather whip. Meant to evoke both a tornado and a roller coaster, the instrument's sound was instantaneously processed and sent spinning through the audience in the first compelling example of 3D audio during the festival. Mourning Fog, in contrast, was a study in the application of delicious reverberation. A procession of slow melodies transform from lush melancholy to terse simplicity and back. Kivie Cahn-Lipman’s performance on cello was the perfect balance of emotional distance and expression.
Had the hall been less well-tuned, Cyclone and Mourning Fog might have been unintelligible hives of noise. Instead, it was an inviting blanket of sound in which to get lost.
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