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Review: The 24th Annual Ussachevsky Memorial Festival of Electro Acoustic Music

The Ussachevsky Memorial Festival has taken place at Pomona college every year for the last 24 years to commemorate Pomona graduate and electronic music pioneer Vladimir Ussachevsky (1911-1990). The two-day event boasts fourteen composers from many walks of life, all with something in common: electronics alongside human-played instruments. I was fortunate enough to attend the Friday concert, and it was a night of music to make you wonder, imagine, get inspired, connect, dissect, reconnect, feel, and fall in love to. The audience was transported to open meadows (String Fields by Bill Alves) and to the subway in New York (Hoyt-Schermerhorn by Christopher Cerrone); it was morphed and molded (Shapeshifter by Molly Joyce) and curved and bent (Red Arc / Blue Veil by John Luther Adams) and tangled up in a million tonal colors (Rainbow Tangle by Tom Flaherty). We even caught a whiff (Pheromone B by Isaac Schankler) of the magic imaginary instruments (Study for Clarinet and Imaginary Pianos by Adam Borecki) and old-fashioned violas (First Viola Study by Christian Ryan) by conjure.

While I regret that I was unable to attend any of Saturday’s events, I would like to share with you some of the program notes: “Dissections is both a microscope and a scalpel. Created from a collaboratively generated text and numerous workshops, these six newly composed works scrutinize instruments, gestures, and language, and reflect the destruction, transformation, and intimacy inherent in peeling away our surfaces.” If you talk to me for too long, you will quickly learn I have a penchant for drawing on the scientific side of music, particularly psychoacoustics. A set of compositions explicitly attempting to simulate (if not even participate on some level) the traditional scientific act of dissection, thus reversing the typical relation of music as object and listener as interpreter, excites me to no end. Though experimental and modern, this music is highly approachable; there was a young man a few rows ahead of me with two young children in tow, and they were spell-bound through the whole concert and eagerly talked about their favorite pieces after the finale (while running at full speed down the hall, of course).

If one thing is learned from this concert, it is that new music is not dead. It is incredibly alive, and its pulse can be felt clearly in new electroacoustic compositions like the ones heard last Friday. We heard pieces from established masters as well as from the next generation who will continue to evolve and inspire. The instrumentalists proved that the art of live performance is also thriving, and can exist harmoniously with electronic technology. The audience was graced with the honor of hearing not just one, but four Grammy-nominated artists: pianists Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Nadia Shpachenko-Gottesman, and Aron Kallay, and percussionist Nicholas Terry. All the performers and composers on the program abound with honors and awards. Based on what I heard, they deserve every single one. This is no mere college art music festival. This is truly a collaboration of magnificent talent and hours upon hours of hard work to create beautiful music worthy of gracing the millions of years that may hear it in the 21st century and beyond.

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