AMN Reviews: Andrea Belfi – Alveare [IIKKI 002]

Alveare, a collection of electroacoustic music by Italian percussionist / composer Andrea Belfi, is part of a collaborative multimedia project with photographer Matthias Heiderich. Inspired by Heiderich’s pictures of the modernist housing complexes put up in Italy after World War II, the LP’s five tracks were composed and played between 2007 and 2016. As befits Belfi’s status as a percussionist, all are firmly set on a foundation of rhythmic drumming or percussion work, often wrapped in an atmospheric overlay of electronics. Grigio, which features cellist Audrey Chen as guest contributor, adds microtonally discordant sustained tones given various colors through changes in bow position. Abito creates the illusion of sounds passing back and forth in space, courtesy of guest artist Attila Faravelli on rotating speakers. The spare regularity of Belfi’s music aptly complements the visual rhythms of Heiderich’s images of these buildings’ unornamented, exposed concrete surfaces.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: Dana Jessen – Carve [Innova 910]

726708691028-front-coverLike the double bass in the 1950s, the bassoon is an instrument often overlooked as a solo voice with the potential to push the boundaries in new music. In order to change that, bassoonist Dana Jessen has been endeavoring to develop an adventurous repertoire of new work for solo bassoon. On Carve, her debut release, she does that with a set of four pieces she commissioned from contemporary composers for solo bassoon and electronics.

The four compositions, written in 2014 and 2015 and recorded in September, 2015 and May, 2016 at Jessen’s home institution of Oberlin Conservatory, are the products of a collaborative process. Jessen met with the composers and played some improvisations for them; these served as the kernels around which the compositions were constructed, each of which was shaped as much by her musical language and sensibility as by the composers’ own ideas. Working this way entailed a strategy of mutual interpretation that upends and in a way reverses the conventional relationship between the composer as originator and the performer as interpreter.

On all four pieces, creatively employed electronics serve to transform, supplement or challenge the sound of the acoustic instrument. Paula Matthusen’s of an implacable subtraction is a melodic piece whose minor modality is tinted with melancholy; the electronics pick up and reinforce key points in the bassoon line, stretching and repeating them to make them a harmonic bed of lingering tones. In Points against Fields by Sam Pluta, Jessen’s extended technique and energetic playing lend the bassoon an otherworldly sound that complements the surrounding surf of electronic splashes, chirps and static. Peter V. Swendsen’s Fireflies in Winter casts fragments of bassoon melodies in the role of commentators on field recordings of the natural and urban environments. During one passage in which the bassoon is surrounded by the sounds of crickets and other nocturnal wildlife, one can almost hear the vast expanses of night sky reaching above. Cadenza and Degradations seems a contemporary improvised bassoon sonata, with an elastically-scaled virtual wind ensemble made up of composer/oboist Kyle Bruckmann’s multiply recorded oboe and bass oboe forming the backdrop for Jessen’s elegant solo lines. In between the compositions are brief solo interludes each of whose sounds derive from a gesture or technique relating to the pieces on either side. These interludes lend the CD the cohesive feeling of a suite of distinct but mutually supporting performances.

A second factor that gives the release a notably holistic sense is Jessen’s own voice. Hers is an expressive presence with a warm tone and a refined vibrato, both of which preserve a humanistic heart in the midst of technological embellishment. It’s a finely calibrated balance, achieved as well by the composers’ sensitively crafted environments in which Jessen’s voice can resonate. And in the end, it’s Jessen’s appealing musical personality that animates this outstanding collection of work.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Ingar Zach – Le stanze [SOFA552]

sofa552The four pieces on Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach’s Le stanze exploit the many-faceted sounds at the meeting place of an expanded percussion set, electronics and silence. The release begins austerely enough, with long emptinesses broken by the occasional scrape, rub or thump reverberating in an enveloping silence. The aptly titled second track, Il battito del vichingo (the Viking’s beat), enlists resonant, hollow metal for a rapid, regular rhythm that eventually stops short to leave an exposed, static chord. This in turn gives way to rattles and strikes on shimmering metal. Closing out the collection, the surge and decay of L’inno dell’oscuritá (The Hymn of Obscurity) opens out to the harsh abrasive electronics of È solitudine (It Is Solitude).

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Morton Subotnick – Music for the Double Life of Amphibians [Wergo 73122]

wer73122_648pixelThe literal meaning of “amphibian” is “double life” and applies to animals living part of their lives in water and part of their lives on land. In the program note to his electroacoustic classic Music for the Double Life of Amphibians, Morton Subotnick states that “amphibian” is to be taken as a metaphor for the work’s structure and programmatic content, which follow a metamorphosis of being through the stages of amphibian to beast to angel. But it also applies to the musical material, the double life of which plays itself out in its inhabiting the two environments of electronic and acoustic sound.

The electronic element, which Subotnick terms “ghost electronics,” consists of interactive live sound processing triggered by data programmed onto tape or into a computer. The programming, which Subotnick developed in collaboration with the late Don Buchla, is accomplished through gestures performed on the touch plate of a Buchla machine; these recorded gestures then serve as scores to guide a setup of live electronics—the performances here use Buchla synthesizers–which modifies the sounds of acoustic instruments or voices fed in through microphones. The “ghost” in the process is the recorded gesture—an action completed in the past and memorialized in the material trace of the tape (later, Max/MSP)—which projects itself into the present of a real-time performance, altering the sounds of the latter as it does.

Taken in sequence, the work’s three parts purport to trace an evolutionary path upward from life in water to life in air. Part I, Amphibians (1980-1981), is made up of two sections. The first, Axolotl, is named for a lake-dwelling amphibian that, though it possesses elementary lungs, never actually undergoes metamorphosis to reach an earth-dwelling, air-breathing stage. Scored for cello (Joel Krosnick) and electronic ghost score, Axolotl calls for a virtuoso performance of conventional and extended techniques: Extreme and rapid leaps of register, sometimes violent percussive gestures, tremolo bowing, energetic glissandi, and more. The electronic processing pitch-shifts the instrument’s sound to get a mildly choric effect and also serves to flatten the cello’s native resonance into a slightly brittle, unnatural timbre. The second section is Ascent into Air, for mixed chamber ensemble and electronics. Ascent begins with brooding, dense and often tense blocks of sound dominated by the cellos and the pianos’ lower registers; gradually the texture rarefies as individual instrumental voices separate out and the pitch color lightens to include higher registers for strings, piano, clarinet, percussion and electronics. Part II consists of The Last Dream of the Beast (1979, revised 1982/84), which appears here scored for soprano, two cellos, Buchla synthesizer and ghost electronics. Originally conceived as a theatrical piece, the version here is an aria-like vehicle for a bravura performance by Joan La Barbara, whose wordless, urgent voice is electronically distorted into a dreamlike, disorienting sound as it skitters over a dark ground of somnolent, low drones. Completing the work’s progression of metamorphoses is A Fluttering of Wings (1981) for string quartet and ghost electronics, energetically played by the Juilliard String Quartet. The four-section piece eschews conventional contrapuntal writing for string quartet; instead, it deals in a thickening and thinning of rapid and less rapid sequences of sounds. The ghost electronics produce a strobe-like effect on the strings that creates the audio image of beating wings or of bodies swooping and hovering in air.

Music for the Double Life of Amphibians was originally released on three LPs on the Nonesuch label in the early 1980s. This CD reissues those recordings—a most welcome development that collects this fine, once-scattered work in one place.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Andrè Gonçalves – Currents & Riptides [Shhpuma SHH019CD]

SHH019CD-COVER-800The currents and riptides of Andrè Gonçalves’s two track release move slowly through a placed body of water. The twenty-seven-and-a-half minute Long Story Short, which in addition to Gonçalves’s modular synthesizer, guitar and Fender Rhodes features Pedro Boavida also on Fender Rhodes, is a slow, atmospheric track in which fragments of melody float above chirping electronics, electric chaff and crackle, and bass notes not quite coalescing into a line. Will Be Back in a Few, which adds Rodrigo Dias on bass and Gonçalo Silva on guitar, reworks a classic ambient sound by putting slowly rocking notes against a nearly stationary ground implying a major key. Both tracks seem to be dispatches from a horse latitudes of sound.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Gordon Mumma – Cybersonic Arts: Adventures in New American Music [University of Illinois Press, 2016]

MummaF15Quite often, technological revolutions engender revolutions in aesthetics. Such was the case in the 1960s, when the widespread adoption of transistors facilitated the creation and diffusion of smaller, more affordable and more versatile electronic devices for recording, amplifying and modifying sound. One of those who saw and exploited the new technology’s potential applications to music was Gordon Mumma, a new collection of whose writings from 1960-2013 provides a contemporary history of a particularly fertile and disruptive time in the advanced arts.


The 1960s revolution in electronic technologies gave rise to a new way of conceiving of the arts and their relations not only to the technologies, but to creators and audiences as well. As art critic Jack Burnham observed in an important article in 1968, much of the period’s avant-garde art appeared to embody an aesthetic based on the emulation or representation of systems. Or their embodiment: It was during this same period Mumma that described his exploratory work with real-time sound processing as “cybersonics.” A variety of a systems approach to sound, cybersonics applied cybernetics, a concept introduced by mathematician Norbert Wiener in the 1940s, to music. Based on probability theory, cybernetics looked at closed systems and the changes within them produced by feedback mechanisms; hence, as Mumma succinctly defined it in his note to the release Electronic Music for Theater and Public Activity, cybersonics “is a situation in which the electronic processing of sound activities is determined (or influenced) by the interactions of the sounds with themselves.”

As the book documents in detail, Mumma’s interest in sonic feedback systems led him to develop his own innovative performance practices and sound manipulating devices. These technologies of practice and equipment informed a series of works that he created for himself on French horn, with and without other voices, and electronics. Two of these—Horn (1965) and Hornpipe (1967)—were characteristic pieces that he performed widely and recorded. Both took acoustic sounds and fed them into what Mumma called “cybersonic consoles”—analogue signal processing devices that he designed and built—which then modified the input through ring modulation or feedback loops, and sent the results out to stereo speakers. Although off-the-shelf digital devices have largely supplanted the kinds of hand-built, analogue systems that Mumma devised for these and other early pieces, the general pattern the two works set and the possibilities they opened up continue to be influential in contemporary electroacoustic music.


Horn was written during a period when Mumma was living and working in Ann Arbor, often on the periphery of the University of Michigan, which he withdrew from in 1954 after having studied there for two years. While in Ann Arbor he helped organize the ONCE Festivals of new music, six of which were held between 1960 and 1965. His account of how it all happened is a highlight of the book and offers insights into the organizational mechanics of staging a regularly occurring, interdisciplinary event outside of a major institution.

ONCE began as a way to stage performances of works by Ann Arbor’s more experimental composers. Although their initial focus was on music, the programs became increasingly varied, including not only electroacoustic music experiments but also film, dance, lectures, theater, and fluxus-like performance pieces. Despite, or because of, the exploratory and provocative nature of the programs, the festivals attracted growing audiences; the inevitable controversy surrounding the nature and quality of the performances certainly helped to generate interest.

The relationship of the festival to the University of Michigan’s School of Music was predictably contentious. ONCE was conceived at least in part as a counterbalance to what many felt was UMI’s general neglect of modern and new music. Although the faculty seem largely to have been unsupportive, some of the performers were students at UMI’s music school. This seems only to have increased tensions, since the students’ participation had what Mumma describes as an alienating effect vis-à-vis their regular studies and the faculty.

In addition to succeeding as a means for under-exposed music and performance art to reach an audience, ONCE showed how necessarily DIY operations could, through commitment and substantive offerings, establish themselves as effective rivals to more established and better-funded institutions. In this respect, ONCE has continuing relevance as a potential template for contemporary new and experimental music festivals and curatorial endeavors. Despite consistently operating at a loss, over the course of its lifetime ONCE grew in scope and reach and consequently moved into ever bigger, if still unconventional, performance spaces. By the time of the final festival, 1965’s ONCE AGAIN, ONCE had expanded from its origin as a more-or-less one-off platform for a small group of artists’ self-presented works to a counter-institution of its own, eventually offering a series of year-round performances of new music and providing the impetus behind the formation of a touring new music ensemble.


The group effort that was the ONCE Festivals illustrate an important side of Mumma’s engagement with music—the collaborative side. Consequently, much of the book is given over to his contemporary accounts, reminiscences and portraits of the various artists and groups he worked and toured with over the years. Mumma’s long account of his time with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, aptly titled “From Where the Circus Went,” is a detailed narrative of the years he spent touring with the Cunningham group as the third of three musical collaborators–John Cage and David Tudor were the other two—providing discrete compositions or elastic soundscapes for the dancers. Mumma gives a good sense of the daily realities of transporting, setting up and working with sometimes balky technologies whose output could puzzle and at times annoy audiences, not to mention the dancers themselves. The music the Cunningham group used could be wildly controversial; a work like Canfield (1969), its score by Pauline Oliveros, could win a prestigious award in one country while provoking riots in another. Mumma relates all of it in a detail-attentive, dispassionate voice.

Cage was, of course, the most famous—or notorious, depending on whose judgment was concerned—of the Cunningham group’s sound collaborators. Mumma, who knew Cage for decades and last saw him only three months before Cage’s death, devotes a set of three pieces to a consideration of Cage as a performer, particularly of electronic music. While lacking the intimacy of, say, Carolyn Brown’s portrait of Cage in her Chance and Circumstance, Mumma’s anecdotes and impressions provide a discerning picture of a side of Cage that has often been eclipsed by his reputation as a composer and disseminator of ideas.

Mumma tells a revealing story about Cage’s performance on Mumma’s Swarmer, a duet for concertina and saw presented at a concert hastily arranged at Cornell University during a 1968 tour by the Cunningham group. The work consisted in an unnotated, orally-transmitted set of instructions for playing one- or two-pitched, semi-improvised events. Mumma was to play saw and Cage the concertina; not knowing the instrument, Cage had to learn it during the one and only rehearsal the day of the concert. Despite some mistakes during rehearsal, Cage gave a flawless and sophisticated performance that Mumma offers as evidence that despite Cage’s frequent claims to the contrary, he did have an ear for pitch and harmony as well as a high level of confidence and comfort as a performer generally.


The electroacoustic works Mumma developed and performed embodied an aesthetic based on a systems concept. But the system was never more than an outgrowth of a sensibility. And that sensibility is one open to the vicissitudes and contingencies of the performing situation as they influence the performance, sometimes pulling it in unpredictable directions. Pieces like Horn or Swarmer, with their semi-improvised features and embrace of in-the-moment risk, were premised on such openness. As composer Roger Reynolds noted of him, Mumma possessed an “extraordinarily responsive pragmatism” that, through close observation, could take the measure of the external and accidental factors at play in a performance—what might be called the facticity of the situation—and turn them from more or less obstinate roadblocks into the occasion for free action.

Mumma’s pragmatism may be the proof of the robustness of his systems aesthetic.  For it may be that it’s at the limits of the system—that boundary territory where it breaks down and becomes permeable to external pressures and the influences of something other—that, through assimilation and conversion, the system evolves and moves forward. Which is one way to describe the feedback loop of an open system, which the performance situation of a piece like Horn or Swarmer would inevitably seem to be. As Mumma himself puts it, “systems can provide a flexible sort of discipline.”  Mumma’s book bears articulate witness to how this flexible discipline played itself out in concrete situations over the decades.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Michael Nicolas – Transitions [Sono Luminus DSL-92202]; Mari Kimura – Harmonic Constellations [New World Records 80776-2]

When joined to electronics, the solo acoustic instrument enters into a potentially complex and pointed relationship with itself. The instrument becomes its own double, its voice both converging on and diverging from self-identity as it undergoes modification, metamorphosis, multiplication and whatever other types of manipulation or accompaniment electronics afford. The effects can be modest or dramatic, depending on the degree and kind of interaction in question, but in all cases the translation of the solo acoustic instrument’s voice from its native language into an electronically-enhanced  dialect creates a dialogue between self and other in which the self is other, and vice versa. Two new releases, one of solo cello and electronics and one of solo violin and electronics, show the diverse forms this dialogue can take.

michael-nicolasTransitions features cellist Michael Nicolas in a variety of electronic settings that demonstrate the different kinds of partnerships acoustic and electronic elements can form. Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 3 for Cello and Electronic Sounds is a duet that draws on an extended modernist vocabulary for cello and matches it to splashes of electronic sound. The acoustic nature of the cello is thrown into high relief as it confronts itself against the artifice of uncompromisingly electronic timbres. In David Fulmer’s Speak of the Spring the electronic component intervenes to modify the sound of the cello, its processing opening up a gap between the cello and itself; from this self-alienation an intriguing soundscape emerges. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s austere Transitions, written in the contemporary language of fragmentary melody and microtonal harmonies, is the one track that dispenses with electronics. Because of its use of an expansive timbral palette, though, it doesn’t at all feel out of place. In contrast to the works made of discontinuous sound events, Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint, which transforms a multitracked Nicolas into a cello section in perpetual motion, and Annie Gosfield’s Four Roses for cello and synthesizer, are constructed around a more conventional rhythmic continuity. The album closes with Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa’s flexura, a tour de force duet for hypermodern cello and MANO. (The latter is a touchpad controller that generates and modifies sounds.) The piece draws on a thick repertoire of extended techniques, including pressure bowing, multiple harmonic effects and sound clusters, all of which weave in and out of the electronic tapestry with ease and a profound sense of belonging.

mari-kimura-harmonic-constellationsThe sonic center for all of the works on violinist Mari Kimura’s Harmonic Constellations is to be found in Kimura’s warm, singing tone, no matter what the larger context. Often, this latter takes the form of a pre-recorded backdrop, as for example in Eric Moe’s Obey Your Thirst. There, Kimura plays a frantic, irregularly accented pulse against simulated metallic and liquid sounds before falling back onto long, slow tones and double stops. Eric Chasalow’s Scuffle and Snap sets out an electronic background of popping, pizzicato-like sounds to complement Kimura’s actual pizzicato playing or to contrast with her smoothly bowed lines. Kimura’s own composition Sarahal, an exciting piece for two violins and live processing, represents the most forceful intervention of electronics into the violin’s natural sound world. An uncanny multiplication of sonic images, the performance consists of Kimura’s virtual duet with herself within an otherworldly thicket of pitch shifting, flanging and delay. The CD’s center of gravity lies in Michael Harrison’s seven part Harmonic Constellations, a microtonal piece for overdubbed violin and sine tones. As its title suggests, the piece is made up of harmonies arising from knots of coincident tones. A study in undulating, incremental harmonic movement, much of its sound derives from the choric effect of juxtaposed, nearly-identical pitches which beat against each other. The violin is woven directly into the shimmering drone to such an extent that it seems to be just another electronic tone—a submergence of identity that isn’t a loss of identity so much as the inspired creation of a new hybrid.

Daniel Barbiero