AMN Reviews: Ron Nagorcka – Atom Bomb Becomes Folk Art [pogus P21076-2]

“The very essence of electronic music is distortion!” This declaration, one of the spoken passages of Ron Nagorcka’s Atom Bomb for toy instruments, cassette tape records and miscellaneous devices, stands as a kind of epigram for the open and experimental spirit behind much of the music in this 2 CD survey of Nagorcka’s work.

Raised on a sheep farm in Western Victoria in Australia, Nagorcka was immersed in the sounds of the natural world—sounds that were to play a significant role in his music later in life. His formal music studies included pipe organ and harpsichord performance as well as composition and electronic music, the latter in California under the tutelage of Robert Erickson, Pauline Oliveros, Kenneth Gaburo and John Silber. Returning to Australia, he taught composition and in the 1980s moved to a remote part of Tasmania, where he is as much a naturalist as he is a composer/musician.

The pieces collected in this set cover a thirty year period, running from 1973’s Finite Differences for pipe organ duet, to three works from 2006. Some of the early work is represented by archival recordings of first—and sometimes only—performances. Taken together, they trace the progress of Nagorcka’s interests and the developments in sound technology that helped him to realize them.

The earliest pieces represented here show Nagorcka exploring pitch and timbre with often innovative—and sometimes unreliable—sound sources. Finite Differences’ combination of a limited set of notes and chords with manipulation of the pipe organ’s stops results in a series of dissonant harmonies sandwiched by a low frequency throb and high frequency drones. Modulation (1974) is a later studio reworking of a recording of a malfunction-ridden performance featuring reel-to-reel tape loops and a VCS3 synthesizer. Requiem (1976) for solo piano and Atom Bomb (1977) are new performances of works quite different in structure and feeling. The latter, realized by the trio Golden Fur in 2010, is a gradually accumulating cacophony of spoken fragments, sung lines and miscellaneous sounds building in density, volume and general noisiness over a quietly languid chord progression. Requiem, performed by pianist Nicholas Cummings in 2012, is a haltingly spare memorial to Melbourne composer Ian Bonighton.

The newer work explores alternative tunings or scales as well as field recordings of Australian fauna and locations. The multipart Artamidae (2002) and June Bluffing for Quamby (2006) complement field recordings of birds or landmarks with just intonation and changing time signatures. With myriad degrees of light-dark infusion (2006) is another work in just intonation, scored for an electroacoustic chamber ensemble of trombone, clarinet, cello and MIDI using a 43-tone scale created by Harry Partch. A pungently polyphonic piece, its crossing lines often produce slightly alien-sounding harmonies.

All in all, a rich and highly diverse collection of work.

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