Review: Doron Sadja and Byron Westbrook at the wulf

On Saturday, February 7, 2015 the wulf presented works by Byron Westbrook and Doron Sadja. The friendly confines of the wulf were nicely filled with a crowd that heard an evening of field recordings from Westbrook and selections from Doron Sadja’s electronic work, In Slow Motions.

According to the program notes, the recordings of Brooklyn-based Byron Westbrook explore “…listening, space, perception and awareness, often pursuing routes with social engagement. His electronic sound interventions play with dynamics of perception of space, sometimes as multi-channel sound performances or as installation work using video or lighting.”

The first group of recordings presented were monophonic and captured a single happening outdoors with the microphone acting as a sort of aural camera. Walking a path near a power plant produced a loud 60 cycle hum that alternately increased in volume or faded into the background. There was the low roar of machinery at times, and also the sound of people talking. When the hum predominated there was the opportunity to focus on the pitch itself – removed from its visual power plant context – creating a sort of La Monte Young moment. In another recording at the same place, the soft rumbling of machinery contrasted with the loud chirping of a flock of birds and this served to even the balance of nature in the listeners ear for what must have been an overwhelmingly industrial location.

In another recording, a speaker issuing white noise was placed near the microphone and this was heard along with crickets and other natural background sounds. As the white noise came into the hearing it took on an ambiguous character in the listener’s mind. Sounding at times like a waterfall or maybe a hissing steam pipe, the listener had to decide if it was part of the natural environment or not.

A recording of a violin being played under a freeway produced another interesting effect – as the violin predominated, the familiar image of a musical instrument came to mind. When the freeway noise was dominant, it naturally produced an image of cars passing overhead. But as these sounds cross-faded in and out there were times when the listener conflated the sounds: the freeway was music and the violin part of the traffic. This is a technique that has been effectively employed by John Luther Adams in his outdoor works songbirdsongs and Inuksuit – the periods of silence in these pieces allow the natural environment to become part of the music.

Other Westbrook recordings explored spatial relationships by incorporating two microphones. One involved a power transformer and street noise, another a tambura simulator in two locations. There was also a recording of natural ambient sounds – and the ubiquitous traffic noise – from a local canyon. Another recording had four guitars playing sustained pitches, and as the piece progressed the listener heard, variously, musical harmonies, simple drone hums and somewhat more mysterious, alien sounds. Perhaps the most striking field recording that was presented was a viola playing on a roof top near an exhaust fan. The viola played a sustained note at about the same pitch as the fan – and as the two sounds faded in and out it became difficult to tell where one started and the other left off. Lacking any visual clues, this piece offered elegant evidence of how just much the listener’s brain improvises when descriptive details are missing.

The field recordings presented by Byron Westbrook invite the listener to examine what is being heard, and to question – or at least try to understand – the factors at work influencing our aural perceptions.

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Doron Sadja followed with his electronic composition In Slow Motions and this was realized by a table full of computers, synthesizers and mixers. A projector was included that added a video display to the mix. The piece began with a series of deep rumblings that were effectively amplified by the sound system. This was a low, primal roar – like being inside a volcano and hearing massive tectonic stresses groaning deep within the earth. At one point there was an explosive sound that made everyone jump in their seat and this was followed by even more powerful rumbles – the kind you feel more than hear. The combination of the darkness, the powerful sound system and synthesized booming were just on the edge of producing real anxiety.

As the piece progressed the sounds became somewhat more industrial – metallic grinding and something that might be a train horn. These remained very strong but slowly evolved into something more mournful. The projections on the wall were not controlled directly by the sounds, but consisted of a series of precise patterns and colors that gave a welcome sense of order and purpose. As the piece progressed the sounds evolved from earthly and organic to more industrial and civilized. There were sirens, the squeal of brakes, a series of clicks and taps that all pointed towards a more technical environment. Towards the end there were musical sounds along with a sunny yellow projection that seemed to hint at optimism.

In Slow Motions was improvised by Sadja as it unfolded – there was no programming element to the sequence of sounds and projections. There did seem be an arc to it, from an earthy, violent beginning towards a post-civilized future. In Slow Motions is a power-filled electronic realization combining sound and image.

The next activity at the wulf will be Saturday, February 14 at 8:00 PM and will feature
Lisa Truttmann and Guido Spannocchi who will present Elsewhere Lands, a multi-layered media project about theme parks and their audio-visual abstractions.

On February 28 at 8:00 PM Colin Wambsgans will appear.

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