Visions of tomorrow steer Lincoln Chamber’s electronic music time trip

Fri Jan 17, 2020 at 1:06 pm
Kaija Saariaho’s “Trois rivières” was the acoustic outlier in Lincoln Chamber’s electronic music survey Thursday at Kaplan Penthouse. Photographer: Maarit Kytšharju/Fimic

The future doesn’t sound like it used to. Or maybe it’s that recordings and the movies had society imaging the future would sound like, say, Blade Runner (set in a 2019 imagined in 1982), but it turned out that things are both noisier — all those videos people are watching on the subway — and quieter — air pods — than we had imagined.

There’s a nostalgia for sounds that never came to pass, and the vintage equipment that produced them, nowhere more piquant than when listening to electronic music, whether it be Devo or Tangerine Dream or the pieces heard in a fascinating Thursday night concert at Kaplan Penthouse from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Part of their New Milestones series, the tidy but substantial program, “Electronic Chamber Music in a New Form,” went backward in time with works for percussion and electronics from Thomas Meadowcroft, Kaija Saariaho, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Backward, literally — Meadowcroft’s 2013 Cradles came first, Saariaho’s 1994 Trois rivières was in the middle, and Stockhausen’s Kontakte (which premiered in 1960) was last. And as the music moved chronologically toward the past, the ideas seemed to head toward the future.

Cradles was a good example of the world that electronic music has carved out. Starting with one foot in classical modernism, the other in audio engineering, it ‘s become its own genre, one in which pioneers like Pierre Schaeffer and Otto Luening are closer to Throbbing Gristle and Nine Inch Nails than to Bach or Mozart, or even Schoenberg.

The piece, for two percussionists and pre-recorded audio, apparently came out of Meadowcroft’s studies with George Crumb, and it had some of Crumb’s luminous appreciation for music as pure sound, though much looser in form than the older composer’s sinewy structures. The musicians (Ayano Kataoka and Ian David Rosenbaum, and David Adamcyk managing sounds from the back) worked with a series of gestures that filled an indeterminate duration, which in practice amounted to about 10 minutes.

They pulled loops of magnetic tape across play heads — a direct variation on the lovely, charmingly tinny Wurlitzer electric piano chords contained on the tapes. The percussion parts were a series of atmospheric rustles and chimes, while the tape-as-instrument produced the kind of uncanny blips and reversed chunks of sound that might be heard from Varèse, or even Herbie Hancock. 

Despite that vintage context, it was these sounds that were freshest, so much so that once the first bit of playback had passed, the subsequent audio, though gentle and amiable, sounded stale. One wanted to dismiss it and hear what the musicians could do with the tape.

That was the primary strength of the piece and the whole program — the electronics were just one instrument that musicians were playing, and having them up there with the focused energy and care, was the meat of the concert. Meadowcroft describes Cradles as “lullaby” for “treasured analogue musical equipment,” which belied the sense of alertness one felt experiencing it.

Saariaho’s Trois rivières is a muscular percussion piece, full of physicality, that only nominally fit into the company of Meadowcroft and Stockhausen. The composer frequently uses software and hardware to alter acoustic instrument sounds, but there was none of that here. Instead, the four musicians (Kataoka, Rosenbaum, Christopher Froh and Eduardo Leandro) accompanied their playing by reciting — mostly at a whisper — Li Po’s poem (in French) “Moonlight Night on the River.” The effect of the whispering was undeniably atmospheric but in no way was it electronic. This was a terrific performance, and the music part of the experience was a pleasure, but something by Morton Subotnick or Roger Reynolds, or even Saariaho’s own Six Japanese Gardens, would have better fit the theme.

Nothing fit it better than Kontakte, the piece that invented the subgenre of percussion and electronics. Based on Thursday’s performance — by pianist Michael Brown, with Rosenbaum on percussion and Adamcyk again handling the mix —  the 60-year-old composition is in excellent shape and still relevant.

The musicians played along to a pre-recorded four-channel tape, and the realization Thursday was superb, with sounds shooting through the four corners of the room, flying across and through the listeners’  perception. Brown and Rosenbaum were organized around and alert to the tape’s strict timing. 

The electronic part of Kontakte is Stockhausen’s experiment in modulating the frequency of sonic events, pushing them from one extreme of pure rhythm to the other of pure pitch. Brown and Rosenbaum’s playing was a constant anticipation of and response to the audio, their array of instruments also spanning the vast range between rhythm and pitch, with plenty of shimmering and rustling timbres in between. Kontakte is full of questions about the nature of sound and performance, this thrilling performance being just one of what is likely an infinite set of answers.

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presents chamber music of Saint-Saëns and more, 5 p.m., January 26, in Alice Tully Hall.

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