Review: Equal Sound presents M83: Digital Shades [vol. 1]
We found the place all right, though it took a minute to find the door. It’s frankly genius, using a dance studio as a concert venue at night, since it functions like a blackbox theater. It even had a balcony, with squishy sofas to view the performance. It was completely sold out, standing room only. The lights dimmed and Nick Norton, one of Equal Sound‘s directors, ran up to the stage to make an announcement: the Michael Gordon piece, originally written as a reaction to 9/11, was moved to the beginning of the set as tribute for the recent attacks on Paris and Beirut. This simple and meaningful gesture hushed the audience, and the piece began.
Light Is Calling is pure and beautiful, just a solo violin and electronic sounds. It began with the thump of a slow heart, a tiny ray of hope in light of a tragedy. It sounded like music heard through pounding ears, muffled and throbbing like there’s too much adrenaline to calm down enough to pay attention. The violin cut through the pulsating track, the only pure and uninterrupted sound, singing, like glass rubbing on glass. At the end of the song, the sounds through the speakers were clearly manipulated synths, and yet they sounded human, like a choir singing underwater and far away. It was both an elegy for the lost and a paean for the survivors.
John Cage’s Radio Music is a (relative) oldie but a goodie. Oddly enough, it carried over the mood from Gordon’s song. The trick with Cage music is that one often hears what one wants; aleatoric music is more or less a blank slate, the most famous example being 4’33” of silence. I like to say that Cage’s music lets the listener put in more of themselves, sort of like paint by number rather than a filled in piece. Radio Music had the performers holding radios and taking turns twiddling the dial on AM and FM stations and turning up and down the volume. There were commercials for car dealerships, live reports on various sports games, a few pop songs, and a talk radio segment. More than half the piece was static. At the best of times, static and white noise have a kind of mystery, a potentiality to become or be imagined as anything else. Coming immediately after Light Is Calling, the static seemed like a metaphor for waiting to hear from people at the sites of the attacks, or the silence of the fallen.
Next up was Missy Mazzoli’s Harp and Altar. Having first been introduced to her work through her opera the LA Opera put on a month or so ago, it was affirming to hear a quartet piece that solidifies what I now recognize as her style of strident strings, tasteful pitch bends and slides, highly motivic, pounding syncopation in exciting sections, and recorded sounds blending and sometimes overtaking the live sounds. At first I thought the recorded voices were an illusion from open strings from the quartet. After a segment of minimalism in the middle, the voices crescendoed until it all but set the quartet in the background. The ending was absolutely turgid with the quartet grinding on their strings and the voices growing ever louder, and one could practically hear the grain in the wood of the cello. It ended suddenly, like inhaling after holding your breath for almost too long, just a cut and ringing out to nothing. I say here again that my mind was still on Paris and Beirut, and the fading resonance at the end was to me another reminder.
One cannot remain sad forever and the show will go on. I would describe Fog Tropes II by Ingram Marshall as if Stephen Sondheim wrote Lark Ascending as a track for use in the movie Pan’s Labyrinth during the rain scenes. The recorded sounds became windy, dissonant, and haunting; the strings gradually caught up from pastoral air to grim dirge, as if it only slowly dawned on them to change. Chattering birds added to the foggy forest mood, followed by didjeridoo and scratchy strings to make it more foreboding. A woman’s voice in the recorded sounds turned into an unreal animal. Near the end was a kind of double duet, with the violin and viola hocketting pitches and the other violin and cello intertwining melodies. The sound as a whole is how I always imagined a cursed forest would sound. Being from Seattle where the landscape is vastly dim forests, it felt weirdly like a slice of home.
You have probably heard M83‘s Grammy-nominated Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, which contains their hit “Midnight City,” one of their more danceable songs. A French electronic band now local to LA, their niche lies in chill grooves and ephemeral minimalism, often similar to Sigur Rós or Balmorhea. There were ten tracks in total, and given the seamless flow from one piece to another I inevitably got off in keeping track of where I was in the program. That said, Digital Shades is decidedly an album that ought to be heard together in one sitting, so maybe it is even better this way.
My notes from the performance stand as testament to the distinct sonority M83 possesses in each of their songs. It started with ocean waves, synth waves, and string quartet waves. It moved on to vocals moving softly like a stream, drops in the water, over tremolo cello, in the form of a passacaglia; the vocals never change, but the strings move around them. The performance featured a viola plucked like a ukulele, bird song, and white noise, and always sounded natural. Certain sections strongly reminded me of Iceland. Others sounded like people bumping into each other on a New York sidewalk.
An essential takeaway from this concert is that modern music is not inaccessible. While writing this, several people implored me to make this clear, for even they were surprised. It seems that many stereotype new music to be constantly unyieldingly harsh. Yes, I am one who enjoys hearing extended trombone technique solos and experimental jazz. I will be the first to admit that much modern music is an acquired taste. That said, a substantial corps of music in general, from Perotin from the Medieval era to Buxtehude from the Baroque to Milhaud at the turn of the century, can sound alien to our ears attuned to Nirvana and Taylor Swift, when all we listen to from ‘Classical music’ is Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. There is so much more. Live performers can play tonally and in tandem with recorded sounds and it can sound simply beautiful, no qualifiers attached. Some composers push the limits of possibility with sound, and they are, quite literally, the fringes. Equal Sound reminded everyone in the audience that modern music is not dissonant, just new.