String quartets have an extensive tradition, not only in their repertoire and performance practice, but also in characteristic sound. Accordingly, mixing electronics with string quartet is tricky because the balance has to be just right: Too much electronics and the strings are felt as accompanying the speakers, too little and the electronics are commenting beneath a string quartet. Indeed composers might want those effects from time to time, but creating them effectively and intentionally is a delicate procedure. On December 16th, People Inside Electronics presented the Eclipse Quartet in a program of electroacoustic works—all from within the last eight years—that addressed various approaches to handling this precarious balance.
Several pieces took the approach of quartet writing supplemented by subtle electronics that became part of the ensemble itself, often felt rather than heard explicitly. Kojiro Umezaki’s (Cycles) what falls must rise benefitted greatly from this atmospheric type of electronics, which consumed the strings and shakuhachi (performed by the composer) in a scored reflection of touching, personal energy. Ian Dicke’s Unmanned wove granular soundscapes into the agile ebbs and flows so natural to string quartets. The ensemble’s deep understanding of contemporary music was especially apparent in the careful unfolding of Dicke’s textures; straying further and further from the acoustic realm, the quartet gradually withdrew musically and physically until repeating harmonies devolved into electronic noise amid an empty stage.
Among this group of works, Tom Flaherty’s Recess best showcased Eclipse Quartet’s precise and invigorating virtuosity: Driving rhythmic hockets and frenzied, fragmented melodies sandwiched a gorgeously slow middle movement. Flaherty’s work can be performed with or without the electronics and so it is not surprising that it employed the most inconspicuous electronics of the program. And the piece was all the better for its electronic restraint; the writing achieved brilliant, contrapuntal balance between foreground and background throughout. The quartet returned the favor by savoring every raucous tutti and playful imitation with both composure and excitement, thrusting the audience into an intermission of wine-drinking fueled by enthusiasm rather than by awkward, idle small talk.
The bookends of the concert were works of more experimental nature, treating the electronics as an independent—even oppositional—feature rather than an integrative one. Especially striking was the opening piece, the world premiere of Zeena Parkins’s Spirit Away the Flesh. A mosaic of romantic, shimmering and agitated moments emerges from a broadly spatialized atmosphere of field recordings and voices. Recorded spoken texts address the creative process of abstract artists Eva Hess, Hilma Af Klint, and Richard Serra; inquisitive and curious creative impulses are voiced in densely-packed aphorisms. The performers cleverly emphasized the music’s own synthetic and exploratory nature, conveying a coherence among Parkins’s many appropriated influences that felt fresh, individual, and hip from beginning to end.
Parkins’s spacious and unforced writing made way for a Mari Kimura’s I-Quadrifoglio, an active and linear four-movement prayer in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. Kimura’s movements (“Faith,” “Love,” “Hope,” and “Luck”) each playfully interacted with the electronics, ranging from subtle synthetic backgrounds in the first movement to hopping echoes, sweeping filters and harmonizing lines in the later movements. An improvisatory style was delineated by a few moments of stunning cohesion: A melodic doubling between first violin and cello, the violin inheriting soaring, ascending sweeps from the electronics, and a teasing callback to the elegant opening harmonies in the final movement.
The program closed with Missy Mazzoli’s haunting ode to the Brooklyn Bridge, Harp and Altar. Electronics also play against the ensemble here, most of all in the moments where Gabriel Kahane’s voice materializes, singing lines from the Hart Crane poem from which the piece takes its title. But the synthesis of the two contradicting sound worlds is seamlessly brokered by Mazzoli’s signature language: Static yet driving, eerie yet loving, simple yet complex. The use of a clicktrack left something to be desired, but the performance by Eclipse Quartet unfurled dramatic waves of suspense and resignation throughout. The result was an emotionally tumultuous conclusion to the concert, but also one that poignantly reaffirmed the fundamental question of the night: When the performers can themselves convey such deep musical meaning, what role can (or should) technology play? Is it accompanist? Performer? Sound effects?
If you looked around the room at Throop Church during the performance, the incredible amount of work People Inside Electronics did to stage this program was readily apparent. The chairs, performance space and speakers were thoughtfully laid out. The space created was intimate but exciting. The people, cables, mixing boards, computers, light stands and video cameras waiting at the ready betrayed the incredible amount of care afforded every detail. And it payed off: The sound was excellent, the electronics seemed flawless, the concert carried an air of comfortable professionalism that put the audience in the right frame of mind for an adventurous program. At musical commencement, the audience witnessed the members of the Eclipse Quartet do their part, leaping around the fingerboard and pulling the bow heavily through the strings. But like so many modern concerts, that other, binary, member of the ensemble was invisible save a coy, glowing apple hovering above a table of audio equipment. We didn’t see her sweat. We didn’t see her frantically reach to execute the code, or run out of breath as she swept filters across delay lines. She was the buffering, multi-channel elephant in the room, but we didn’t get to see her balance tenuously on the ball.
I enjoyed the program immensely, but it seems to me that this is the missing aspect we must reconcile in order for electroacoustic music performance to move forward. The music is already there: The writing and use of electronic sounds was intricate and balanced and clever, and the Eclipse Quartet showcased impressive chops and huge ears. But the audience needs to experience the exertion, the risk, the capacity to fail of all essential elements of a performance—we need to see the jungle of cables, to doubt them, in order to really appreciate when they work. Of course, sometimes a composer wants to hide technical facets of a performance from the audience, but the impact experiencing a performance has on an audience’s perception of the music must be rightfully acknowledged and incorporated into compositional practice. I left “Electric Eclipse” encouraged that electronics have matured beyond mere exploration in contemporary music–they were meaningful, emotional and powerful musical-rhetorical devices. But I also left confident that the performance practice of electroacoustic music is now the pressing limitation to its further development. It is time to abandon the stoic, screen-lit face as an acceptable prime form of electronic music and explore ways for technology to critically enhance the performance of music, rather than just the sound of it.