Minimum and maximum shared the stage at Boston Court last Friday, their point of contact being People Inside Electronics—the leading presenter of music involving electronics in Los Angeles. Presenting a program of electroacoustic music by three generations of composers called “Points of Contact,” the PIE team once again demonstrated the vital, transformative power of electricity in music.
“Why use electronics…?” an attendee queried in the populous, enlightening pre-concert talk. Theories, each satisfying in their own right, ranged from an expeditious “because it’s there,” to the discretionary “we need not use it,” settling finally on a more deliberate “to create sounds that could never be heard otherwise.”
“Points of Contact” refers to the centerpiece and concluding work of the program, Kontakte (Contacts), by legendary electroacoustic pioneer, Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). PIE’s riveting rendition by pianist Todd Mollenberg, percussionist Ryan Nestor, and sound engineer Scott Worthington proved a pan-sensorial, full body delight, captivating listeners and reaffirming Stockhausen’s place alongside the greats.
Kontakte, composed 1958-60, was among Stockhausen’s first space pieces, whereby the element of space plays an integral role in audience perception. “Sit in the middle of the hall for the full experience, as the piece is quadraphonic,” advised PIE director Aron Kallay pre-concert when there were still a few seats left.
Stereophonic sound was used as early as 1940 in the Disney film Fantasia, where Rimsky-Korsakoff’s bumblebee is heard buzzing to-and-fro among increasingly nervous viewers. Such is the effect of a moving sound source on listener perception. Sound takes on dimension, becoming tangible, corporeal.
Kontakte, among other space pieces by Stockhausen, offers a boosted listener experience by multiplying all the usual effects of music—pitch, timbre (itself highly original in Kontakte), rhythm, volume—with the element of sonic rotation, promoting that sense of absorption and self-forgetfulness induced by all great music.
To ensure optimal success, Stockhausen called for specially built halls ideally suited to the demands of space music—something approaching Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Fortuitously, Boston Court’s Main Stage, site of the Summer Music Series, approximates an egg shape and met Stockhausen’s requirements satisfactorily.
The beautiful configuration of instruments on stage, a Western Gamelan of sorts, was prescribed by Stockhausen and is used in all renditions of the piece. The pianist—really a percussionist with piano abilities—begins by striking a gong, dramatically placed center stage, then wades through an obstacle course of percussion instruments to take up temporary residence at the piano. Pianist Todd Mollenberg handily met the extraordinary demands of his role, juggling a virtuoso piano part while nimbly navigating among an extensive collection of percussion instruments (inadvertently enlarged by percussive footwear) with both control and abandon.
Ryan Nestor, dedicated percussionist, glided discretely and efficiently among his instruments, often approaching them at the last moment as if to avoid spoiling the surprise.
Sound engineer Scott Worthington, working from a station in the back row, adjusted levels of each channel independently, continuously adjusting outputs to achieve the ideal balance.
With keen rhythmic sense, Mollenberg and Nestor coordinated the numerous points of contact between electronics and acoustics, articulating sonic hand-offs precisely. Such stretto effects added an additional source of meaning, promoting listener endurance throughout the objectively lengthy piece.
Climactic moments seemed to be followed by additional high points, without loss of impact or credibility. Treats for the listener abounded in every moment, quite by design.
“The piece was conceived in Moment form,” noted Todd Mollenberg in post-concert remarks. “Each moment is self-contained and separate from its neighbors to create an antinarrative,” elaborated Mollenberg.
The completion of each moment—the unforeseeable evaporation of sound followed by fresh sonic germination, a kind of ongoing death and resurrection of sound itself—induced a timeless state, an eternal (or at least 35 minute) present, in listeners.
Far from mere theory, this all happened. There was an atmosphere of excitement in the air that abstract music such as this—undeniably bizarre, space-age music for electronics and acoustic noise-makers—could be so thrilling.
Contrasting so sharply from Kontakte as to be linked only by the use of electronics, the pre-intermission lineup featured a minimalist tasting menu of three pieces by three generations of composers sympathetic to the cause of less being more in music.
If Kontakte drew on the maximum means to induce focus in listeners, the minimalist first half subsisted in narrower bands, allowing space for meanderings of free-association, leaving free rein to the imagination.
Scott Worthington, before donning sound engineer’s hat, took the stage for the opening number as contrabass soloist in Julia Wolfe’s Stronghold.
“I am always thinking about the physical effort involved and what it takes to make sound,” Wolfe (born 1958) has said of her compositional process. The term “stronghold” should refer to the bassist’s bow grip, which is thoroughly tested throughout the ambitious, extensive exploration of bass terrain. A stronghold of musical devices, each finding safe haven in the towering presence of the contrabass, king of strings, the piece unfolds in a steady flow of events including abrupt changes in volume and textural density, microtonal moanings of marine mammals, and crab canons (where a melody is accompanied by itself played backwards) reminiscent of Bach.
Throughout, the work is unified by a disciplined self-referential process, where each idea grows from an initial germ stated in the solo bass, then taken up by additional basses in a recording. The resulting effect is a musical kaleidoscope, with one event type subtly giving way to the next. The piece halts suddenly following powerful, characteristically deep bass tones, bowed on the bridge.
In proper new music form, lights were dimmed to pitch black for the next work, The Light Gleams an Instant, by PIE director Colin Horrocks (born 1992). Horrocks himself performed the work, scored for solo saxophone and live electronics. The title, borrowed from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, refers to the impermanence of life and music. “Music is a temporary art form; the ephemeral nature of sound allows it to exist only in the moment,” explained Horrocks in program notes. Beckett’s “light” is, for Horrocks a metaphor for sound.
Horrocks’s sounds did not merely fade away, however, gleaming an instant only to disappear into oblivion. They were all recorded, electronically reworked with Max, the industry standard for live musical processing, and played back in self-referential accompaniments. “The live notes are transposed, and in some cases the upper partials are played back,” clarified Horrocks in post-concert discussion.
As expressive saxophone tones and their musical fractals emerged from the lights-out backdrop, a surreal calm descended on the hall, calling listeners together in a moment of reflection and recollection.
Steve Reich’s (born 1936) Electric Counterpoint, a contrastingly bright, light piece befitting the season in its carefree summery bounce, drew the program to the halftime mark and off to a busy intermission.
Brian Head, noted guitar leader, performed the piece with refreshing vitality and jazzy flair. Head played the work’s 1987 premiere, thus bringing seasoned insight to the current performance.
Electric Counterpoint, like so much of Reich’s music, is the quintessential minimalist example. Terse, spare motives intermingle with each other, delicately phasing in and out of synch to form mosaics of scintillating mist. Discrete notes, while extremely few in number, seem to interlock in ornate braids of extraordinary richness and complexity, much as a DNA molecule or spiral galaxy.
Amidst the simplicity of musical means, otherwise banal devices like crescendos and modal shifts take on striking impact and purpose, inspiring listeners and lightening spirits.
A satisfied audience departed the hall for intermission amusement—a caption writing contest on a photo of Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Later, a generous post-concert reception included beer and sake (potentially worth the price of admission itself). Artists and audience mingled in enthused conversation, their own electric counterpoint, as another original evening at Boston Court drew to a charged close.