EMPAC Wave Field Synthesis Opens TIME:SPANS Festival at the DiMenna Center

Time Spans Wave Field SynthesisAcoustics are a funny thing. In most concert halls, you hear the instruments in your head in relation to their position on the stage, regardless of where you sit: violins sound as if they come from the left, basses from the right, winds and brass behind. But in some older, curved halls - I'm thinking of Carnegie in particular - there are some seats where a disembodied oboe or flute sounds as if it's coming from the right, or even from behind you. These acoustic quirks (which also appear in Whispering Benches) are generally eliminated now with the help of acoustic engineers, who are paid handsomely to ensure every seat has a clear, balanced sound. 

With amplified music, sounds are generally limited by the number of channels in any given loudspeaker array: a stereo system has two channels, a typical home theater system has seven, a movie theater has 10. But, all of these systems project sound in only one direction, meaning you have to position yourself in the absolute center of the room in order to get a "true" surround sound experience. And, even then, the experience is mostly individual sounds bouncing around the room (i.e., Stockhausen's 24 channel work Cosmic Pulses.)

Enter Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), which works with a technology called Wave Field Synthesis that claims to have the ability to project sound in real space, much like in an acoustic concert hall. The technology, which was developed at the Delft University of Technology in the late 1980's, has been used in live performance before, but with inconsistent results. EMPAC's innovation is to use a modular array of 558 mini loudspeakers, grouped into 18 modules of 31 speakers each, plus subwoofers. The technology - which involves the manipulation of sonic wave fields -  is too complicated to explain here, but working with software developed at IRCAM in Paris, the EMPAC array enables composers to project high resolution sounds not from a single source, but from different locations around a room. 

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra Returns to Live Performance at Tanglewood

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood, 7/17/21
STOCKBRIDGE, Massachusetts - On a fairly unremarkable Tuesday in March 2020, I decided at the last minute to go see the NY Phil and Louis Langrée perform a concert at David Geffen Hall that included Debussy's Nocturnes and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Scriabin's explosive Poem of Ecstasy, and Ravel's mystical Shéhérezade (with the captivating mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard.) The Phil played to their usual high standard, nbd.

Little did I know that would be the last live concert I'd see the Phil - or anyone - perform for sixteen months. 

Suffice to say: it's been a rough year-and-a-half all around. Aside from the horrifying human toll that COVID-19 has taken, countless musicians and performing artists lost their livelihood, scrambling to find other ways to pay their bills while keeping up their musical chops without anywhere to play (aside from parks, porches, and the occasional online gig.) No doubt more than a few hung up their guitars, saxophones, and concert dress for good.

For those that managed to stick it out, a nagging question remained: how would they sound? Is it fair to expect musicians coming off a year-and-a-half layoff to play as well as we remember? (Not to mention, would I remember how to write about them??)

For orchestras, which rely on the interplay of 70-100 highly skilled musicians all carefully listening to one another, the return of live performance seemed daunting to the point of impossibility. How could such a huge collection of individuals possibly play with any texture or nuance after having been apart for so long? Sure, there have been streaming concerts, with orchestras playing in empty halls, socially distanced from one another. But it's one thing to perform in front of a camera, another to play before a live audience.

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Louis Andriessen (1939-2021)


Louis Andriessen New York Philharmonic
Louis Andriessen following the world premiere of Agamemnon at the New York Philharmonic, October 2018 

Less than a week following the death of Frederic Rzewski, on Thursday we lost Dutch composer Louis Andriessen at the age of 82. One of the most influential composers of the past half-century, Andriessen was largely responsible for introducing minimalism to Europe, though he later expanded his palette to works of great color and complexity. I had the chance to hear his music multiple times over the past twenty years, including an outdoor performance of Workers' Union during 2008's Make Music New York, a 2010 performance of Die Staat by Carnegie's Ensemble ACJW and John Adams, and a double bill of his operas Anais Nin and Odysseus' Women at National Sawdust in 2016.

But for me, the high water mark was 2018's Agamemnonwhich the NY Phil commissioned for Jaap van Zweden's first year as Music Director. Agamemnon was Andriessen's first work for large orchestra in decades, filled with militaristic brass and heavy percussion. It was bold, loud, often terrifying. The work was the centerpiece of a week-long festival of Andriessen's music presented by the Phil; in addition, he was the Debs Composer Chair at Carnegie Hall and was a frequent collaborator with Bang on a Can, who considered him both a mentor and kindred spirit:

"As he did for young composers everywhere, he welcomed us, he taught us, he gave us a glimpse into a world in which a composer could be open to radical innovation, open to challenging music’s social place and power, open to building a community of composers and musicians who cared about each other, listened to each other, and helped each other.  We learned so much from him." 

Louis Andriessen following the world premiere of Agamemnon at the New York Philharmonic, October 2018 Photo: Chris Lee

Times obit here.

Frederic Rzewski (1938-2021)

Frederic Rzweski  Big Ears Festival 2017(Frederic Rzewski performing The People United Shall Never Be Defeated! at 2017's Big Ears Festival)

 De mortuis nihil nisi bonum  ("Don't speak ill of the dead") - Chilon of Sparta

I never met Frederic Rzewski, who died on Saturday at the age of 83, but appreciated his passionate, politically-charged music, which I had the chance to hear multiple times here in New York before finally seeing him perform in Knoxville four years ago at the Big Ears Festival. A brilliant pianist and composer with a subversive bent, Rzewski wrote several works which have secured their place in the 20th century canon, including Coming Together (1971) and The People United Will Never be Defeated! (1976). (Times obit here.)

Most remembrances of Rzewski have been fond, like composer Ken Ueno's (b. 1970):

"Over the years, reflecting back on my time with Frederic, he seems more and more like a prophet...He would expound on the imminent demise of American capitalism – he often asked me about how things were in the US. I don’t always realize how much he influenced me - he seemed more like a cool uncle I was hanging out with than a teacher - but I see it now and feel lucky I was to be able to spend so much time with him. RIP brave revolutionary, sir!" 

But Rzewski's legacy is now complicated due to revelations concerning his offstage conduct, most of which has never been widely reported. California-based composer Jen Wang (b. 1980) has been particularly candid about Rzewski's unsavory behavior on Twitter - mostly his harsh or dismissive treatment of younger composers - which was quickly corroborated by several other first and secondhand accounts. Wang is keenly aware that such accusations smack of "cancel culture", but clearly feels the possible damage done to up-and-coming musicians far outweighs any hits to Rzewski's reputation. And she wants to level the field.

"Rzewski barely affected me," Wang says, "but seeing the way people responded to him—how much leeway a composer who's thought of as brilliant gets in terms of behavior; how little concern is given to people with less power—made me see things about new music that I wish I hadn't seen."

Wang herself points out that remembrances of Rzewski's life and career are split along generational lines: one person's "grumpy" is another's "abusive"; “flirtatious”behavior is now seen as “harassment.” (As of yet, Rzewski hasn't been accused of anything beyond some awkward hitting on female musicians.) Seen against the panoply of recent bad behavior among conductors, composers and musicians, Rzewski's conduct seems pretty tame from my perspective - unlikable yes, prickly yes, but far from criminal.

The record of obnoxious behavior among composers is legion: Beethoven was a drunk who screamed at anyone that disagreed with him, Wagner was a womanizer and virulent anti-semite, Stravinsky was notoriously short with musicians and conductors. Hell, I even saw Steve Reich act like a jerk to Lou Reed once, for no good reason. But we still listen to, and are presumably moved by their music. Newsflash: artists aren't always warm and fuzzy creatures, not because they go out of their way to be difficult, but because they don't really give it a second thought. 

I'm not apologizing for Rzewski's admittedly questionable behavior. But, at the same time, it seems a bit unfair to dump on someone who isn't around to defend themselves anymore. (Wang says she's been talking about Rzewski on Twitter for years, with minimal response until now.) As for me, I'll be happy to continue listening to his music - assuming there's anyone still willing to perform it.