Psychedelic Chipmunks

Some contemporary music is hard to call music. This CD from Neuma Records, Electro Acoustic Music 1, is a prime example, but it’s also a prime example of intriguing experimentation in musical elements. There’s pitch, melody, harmony and rhythm, but not structured in the traditional ways we’re used to from the pre-electronic age, and especially, the pre-computer age. This music may be more appropriately called Sonic Art. It’s about unique, manipulated, a-natural sounds that will grab your attention and stimulate your aural/neural pathways.

The easiest to relate to tradition musical forms is the first cut, Paul Lansky’s “Notjustmoreidlechatter.” As the title suggests, it’s built on vocal phonemes, however, these voices are 100% synthesized, computer generated speech-like chatter bordering on Alvin and the Chipmunks. As the most melodic piece on the CD, it features familiar chord progressions to lull us into a false sense of comfort while it takes us on a New Age trip down a rabbit hole. Imagine Enya on magic mushrooms. Underneath the idle chatter is a chorus of elevator music out of a Twilight Zone nightmare.

Next up is Jean-Claude Risset’s “L’Autre face,” featuring soprano Maria Tegrez. It begins sounding more like kindergarteners making fun of modern music than serious art. Then synthesized sounds enter, a saving grace of sonic arousal, as Maria continues to squeal in French. I’m glad I only understand a word here and there. But, fortunately, she controls her voice impeccably and the electronic parts command most of the attention. The voice is pure acoustic, and some parts of the tape accompaniment are computer processed acoustic instruments or concrete sounds, the remainder synthesized.

Charles Dodge’s “Profile” is a fully computer generated piece. An algorithm, inspired by Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry, provides the computer its instructions. I find the technique very interesting, because it strongly reminds me of the computer music I worked on using a program to convert, or translate, images into sound. The program interpreted light value and color turning them into amplitude and pitch creating apparently random tones and harmonies. In a similar fashion, Dodge’s musical fractals create a work that’s etherial and amorphous, an aural equivalent of a giant cosmic nebula lightyears away in deep space.

Our journey proceeds on to a clarinet sonata, not billed as such, but a convenient label for a two movement piece featuring solo clarinet accompanied by tape. (Although tape isn’t used anymore, computer HD or solid state memory is, the term is one of those curious carryovers that has stuck, like dialing a phone.) This one is a beautiful example of electroacoustic music, a true blend of all three variants, straight acoustic clarinet, computer controlled synthesis, and realtime electronic processing of the clarinet. All combine to form colorful harmonies with mysterious and haunting effects that eventually resolve into peaceful tranquility.

“Delay in Glass,” by Daniel Warner, is a four movement work, aptly titled. Glassy synthesis dominates each movement. Recognizable chimes, computer generated sounds, and strange phasing effects from closely tuned frequencies produce a disturbing feel of being surrounded by sound seemingly coming from all directions.

The final piece, and to my taste the strongest, most expressive on the CD, is Kaija Saariaho’s solo cello work, “Petals.” The piece takes the cello places never before heard, yet they are all imaginable. The sounds Ansse Kartunnen gets out of a cello are astoundingly rich. Some are acoustic, some electronically altered. The weaving in and out of the real and surreal keeps the listener engrossed. Detailed liner notes on the techniques used for this cut are conspicuously missing. Is there tape accompaniment or realtime processing? Is it pre-programmed or performer controlled? I wish I knew.

To listen to this CD only once wouldn’t be fair to the music or to yourself. Each listening opens up new perspectives on sonic art. Another enlightening aspect is the album’s well organized sequence, starting with the musically easiest to grasp, then carrying us through, piece by piece, in a logically connected emotional trail up to the last, most striking and powerful work. And there’s still more to this album. It opens windows for us to new musical languages. Once you experience these new idioms and dialects, you may no longer be satisfied with the same’o pop-a-doodle radio play.

Electro Acoustic Music 1 is the first of seven albums in a series. Each one features some composers not found on any of the other releases, and some repeats. Neuma Records specializes in experimental computer music. To view their catalog and purchase recordings, visit [Neuma Records].

(||) Rating — Music : A+ ║ Performance : A ║ Recording : A ║
Boulanger, Dodge, Lansky, Risset, Saariaho, Warner, Electro Acoustic Music 1, Neuma Records, 1990

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