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.
Diamond Pulses, the new electronic album by Daniel Corral, released on Orenda Records and available September 12, is an odd duck. How could it be otherwise, as by Corral’s admission, it “started as a mockup for a microtonal Plinko game/sound-installation.” The Plinko element is referenced on the album artwork, as a glowing grid interacting with a drifting abstract background. There’s a clue.
On the surface of the single, 32-minute track, everything seems perfectly transparent, maybe even grid-like. Insistent, hopped-up Plinko polyrhythms braid together in a dense patchwork of minimalist activity, while oceanic noise waxes and wanes. Or it’s pop electronica, but more desperate, more worldly, shamelessly reverbed. Minimalist motivic transitions speed the texture through harmonic and registral shifts, while rhythm remains constant. Corral knows exactly what he wants us to hear, at what pace, and moody swells of noise give us enough respite to fool us into thinking we’ve made our own choices. Robert Ashley said that music either comes from speech, or it comes from dance. Diamond Pulses is unconditionally from the dance. There are no words here at all.
But there is something else, tugging. What is it? Why the Feldman quote in the liner notes, “Sound is all our dreams of music. Noise is music’s dreams of us.”? The rhythms aren’t just insistent, they’re rabid. Transitions aren’t just inevitable, they’re eerily prescribed. Electronic ephemera churn in atonal relation to pretty guitar-ish licks. Noise swells aren’t just a contrast; they undermine with a mysteriously undercooked autonomy. Things are not as diatonic as they seem.
The piece is not really diatonic, after all. It slowly transforms into an 11-limit tuning system, the middle of the piece swimming in shades of microtonal subtlety. Taken together, the whole is perplexingly different than the sum of its parts. Nothing here quite matches up, as Corral notes, “making it impossible to focus on the endless business of trying to square an imperfect circle.” Grappling with alternative tuning systems has a tendency to bring these kinds of cracks to the fore. Things don’t fit. The illusion of the joints of reality being flush is demolished. That’s the interest in this album; we don’t realize it, but the incongruities here turn us inside-out.
Take a few listens, and see if you notice the flip-flop. Maybe don’t listen to this, despite temptation, while driving. Listen at home, with dedicated ears, to this strangely rigid dance meditation, a fervent solipsism with a disturbingly wild, encroaching reality. Consciously intended or not, Diamond Pulses evokes Los Angeles.
We asked Daniel a few questions about the album:
You mention that the album grew out of an experiment for a Plinko installation. Can you talk a little more about that process of development?
I was at a residency when I sketched out that original Plinko installation idea. I had a great studio right near the beach, and you might be able to hear a cheap imitation of those ocean sounds in the noisy washes that fade in and out during Diamond Pulses. That studio was quite large, and allowed me to imagine what installations might fit inside it. I really like Trimpin’s work, and I think his whimsicality comes out in my music box installations. I was trying to imagine similarly playful sound installations that also have a more conceptually sound footing. I sketched out a just intonation Plinko game on some graph paper, and started thinking about how that might be translated into a performable piece. At the same time, I had a 4-channel audio setup there with which I made quite a few quadraphonic electronic pieces with a tunable sampler. These streams of thought smashed together into Diamond Pulses. Perhaps it is a bit more serious than the original game show-inspired idea, but hopefully still enjoyable.
What specifically made you think that these materials would work as an album-length piece, rather than as an installation?
There are two big factors in the decision to turn Diamond Pulses into an album-length piece: accessibility and space. An installation has a specific time and place in which it can be appreciated, and that unique experience is part of what makes it so magical. On the other hand, an album can find its way all over the world via the internet. Also, live performances of it are solo, so it’s easy to plan and schedule. When my residency ended, I returned back to LA and realized that it would be ridiculous to try and put more installation-type pieces in my small house. But, I could develop the performable electronic piece practically anywhere. For example – I did a lot of programming for it on my laptop during a long Bolt Bus ride with Timur and the Dime Museum. After the first performance of Diamond Pulses at Battery Books, I decided that it would be worth trying to make an album of it. I knew that Orenda Records had put out some fantastic albums of adventurous music, so I reached out to them. I am grateful that they were interested, and they have been great to work with as I developed the piece into what’s on the album!
Is this whole piece in 11-limit temperament? Could you give a little more information for readers who may not be familiar with alternative tuning systems?
It’s hard to come to a succinct explanation of tuning, but I’ll give it a try! Most musicians using microtonality do so with systems based on ratios, often with some sort of fundamental pitch as the denominator. A ratio with a lower numerator and denominator is usually considered more consonant, while higher numbers are more complex and dissonant. “Limits” bound the available pitches to a certain level of complexity (EX: a system with a 3-limit will likely sound less complex than a system with a 5-limit). Basically, Diamond Pulses starts super simple, gets more complex, and returns to simplicity in a sort of ternary form. It starts with just one note and very gradually moves to a limit of 3, then, 5, 7, 9, and 11. After reaching a limit of 11, it gradually contracts back to the single note it started with, which is the fundamental that all of the tuning ratios relate to. Because Diamond Pulses starts with just one note and slowly increases it’s limit, the available intervals get more complex as well. When it decreases it’s limit back to one fundamental pitch, it’s kind of like a symphony ending on a big V-I – at least that’s how I imagine it. I put an image of the “score” on my website here, if anyone is interested: spinalfrog.com/projects/diamond-pulses
I’ve spent a fair amount of time with people and works that use microtonality with great skill and musicality, and have long been a bit too intimidated to really share any of my own. Diamond Pulses is the first piece of mine built around a tuning system that I feel comfortable putting out in the world.
If there is one thing you’d want people to listen for in this piece, what is it?
I never have one universal thing that I want all people to listen for in my music. Rather, I hope that Diamond Pulses has multiple levels on which it can be experienced. Someone that has trained his/her ears to hear the tuned intervals might enjoy doing so, while someone else with no knowledge of or interest in that might just like the spacey rhythmic grooves. I want listeners to engage with Diamond Pulses in whatever capacity they see fit.
Check out the official CD release show this Saturday, with special guests Danny Holt and Mike Robbins:
Saturday, September 12, 8pm and 10pm
504 Chung King Court
Los Angeles CA 90012
• Workers Union, performed by Danny Holt and Mike Robbins
• Diamond Pulses, performed by Daniel Corral
• Two Pages, performed by Danny Holt
• Diamond Pulses, performed by Daniel Corral
But tickets online here:
35 Whirlpools Below Sound is a new CD by Thomas Newman and Rick Cox recently released on the Cold Blue Music label. The 19 tracks on this release are mostly short – from just over 30 seconds to 7 minutes – but together comprise an hour of electro-acoustic works that are intriguingly experimental and richly varied. These pieces were composed jointly by Thomas Newman and Rick Cox over the many years of their musical partnership.
The first track, A Well Staring at the Sky is typical of this CD in the way it evokes a vivid image of surreal loneliness. There is the brief sound of an accordion playing a vaguely familiar street tune and this gives way to the swooshing sound of strong wind accompanied by a few piano notes and a low bass rumbling underneath. Now there is a rattling sound – perhaps some underground pipes – and brief snatches of a piano passage followed by the sound of a music box. All of this is packed into a little more than three minutes but there is the distinct feeling of having been alone for an afternoon in some wind-blown and abandoned desert town.
Other tracks contain similarly striking imagery, often built from unusual sounds. Slate Overture starts with bubbling and clacking, as if standing before some giant alien chemistry experiment. A repeating passage of light bells is heard overhead as a metallic, alien sound is infused into the mix. The mysterious bubbling returns, louder now, building drama but also inspiring am sense of awe before it fades at the finish. Negative Rhythm includes the same scratchy bubbling sound and has a similar feel and texture. Negative Rhythm develops into a slow rolling roar, like a distant volcano with ribbons of flowing lava. A recognizably organic sound, but one made from unnatural sonic materials; the result is convincing and intimidating.
Some of the pieces include familiar acoustic instruments that provide the listener a welcome handhold. Paper Thin, for example, is 40 seconds of repeated and layered music box sounds. Stair contains ominous, deep piano notes with warbling, meandering clarinet tones that add to a mysterious, sinister feel. Some wooden knocking is heard, as if something malevolent is stirring about. Other tracks are pure electronics such as Carapace, a piece that contains the boops and beeps of a retro arcade game. Carapace is active and busy, with some brief moments of unintelligible speech and disjointed guitar riffs. There is a nostalgic feel to this, like standing inside an arcade surrounded by people playing video games.
The variety of sounds and emotions in 35 Whirlpools Below Sound is impressive, and not all of them evoke a mystery or menace. Goldmine Nectarine is smooth and welcoming, like sitting in a warm bath. Smith’s Arcade features tones slipping and sliding around, a sense of uncontrolled imbalance as if we are looking at fun house mirrors. Or Pluton Creek, a piece that joyfully contains 50 seconds of melodious playfulness.
35 Whirlpools Below Sound is a skillfully realized work that takes us to places we have only dreamed of, using sounds that work on our imagination in new and exciting ways.
This CD is available now from Cold Blue Music, CB0040.