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Beyond the Machine’s eVirtuosos Take the Stage

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Arena seating and fluorescent light tubes will give the Willson Theater a warehouse-like feel for the Music Technology Center’s latest Beyond the Machine series, on November 10 through 12. Titled eVirtuosos, the program will feature five solo works that combine technology with technically demanding virtuosic music. “To perform the music on this program you need to have a complete mastery of traditional skills and be an imaginative and creative player,” said the center’s artistic director, Ed Bilous, who has been encouraging the performers go beyond the traditional limitations of their instruments. According to Bilous, eVirtuosos gives new life to Beyond the Machine’s original idea, which was not to focus on the machines that produce the electronic effects, but rather to use it to create an entirely new dimension of art. “I think it’s very important to show that electro-acoustic music is much more than exotic sounds and innovative technology,” he said. “There is a growing body of fantastic music that can measure up to masterworks of the past.” To end the show, the Juilliard Electric Ensemble, comprising the evening’s soloists, will perform an improvisation using newly designed multimedia programming software that they will control. Here, three of the performers describe the works they’ll be playing to Journal assistant editor Molly Yeh (B.M. ’11, percussion).

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Kaija Saariaho’s Pres for cello and electronics (1992), performed by fourth-year cellist Jay Campbell

Pres is a musical triptych describing the sea that was inspired by a Gauguin painting called Fatata te miti. Like most of Saariaho’s music, it has a really hypnotizing, organic flow—in her words, the piece stems from the “experience of the sea, waves, their different rhythms and sounds, stormy weather and calms. In other words: material, wave shapes, rhythmic figures, timbres, the charging up of the music and ultimate release of that charge.” So even at times when the piece sounds very free, it’s actually quite rhythmically complex (two bars rarely stay in the same meter) to emulate both that kind of expansive quality of calm ocean on one hand, as well as the turbulent, jagged rhythms of crashing waves, maelstroms, and so on. The great thing about spectral music like this is that nature is often the primary source of inspiration—Tristan Murail is a great example of this—so even through the thick of avant-garde techniques and sonic experimentation, there’s an element at the core that is immediately engaging even to those resistant to contemporary works.

Russell Pinkston’s Lizamander for flute and Max/MSP (2004), performed by second-year master’s flutist Emi Ferguson

Lizamander is written for solo flute and the multimedia programming software Max/MSP, which allows for real-time audio processing that creates a “chamber music” piece for solo flute. The computer software takes notes played by the performer and manipulates them to create accompanimental parts that work together to form an eight minute piece—at one point, creating a four-part harmony. People often think the technological side of the electro-acoustic performances will always mean a prerecorded track, but what I find exciting about working with Max/MSP is that every sound that is created comes from the performer, so that you have so much control over what the final product is.

Kaija Saariaho’s Six Japanese Gardens for percussion and electronics (1994), performed by first-year D.M.A. percussionist Michael Truesdell

This quasi-programmatic work functions not as a narrative (as in the great programmatic works of Strauss or Mahler), but by capturing the essence of each garden in this six-movement work. The first movement exudes austere confidence—bare and balanced, then taking the listener through whirling soundscapes, moments of unbridled virtuosity, introspection, and ending as we began, in the translucent shimmer of the triangle. 

Javier Alvarez’s Temazcal for maracas and tape (1984), performed by first-year D.M.A. percussionist Michael Truesdell

A hissing tone cuts through silence, producing ominous aural surroundings. Slowly, sonic footsteps grow more frequent as the texture thickens. The rising anticipation finally reaches its pinnacle with a literal bang, producing a disjunct, angular pulse, embellished by the maracas with rhythmic accents, flourishes, and serpentine polyrhythms. The maracas and electronic landscape then engage in an unconventional pas de deux through style, tempo, and emotion. The maraca techniques required draw upon the traditional style of maracas llaneras in the joropo music from the plains of Colombia and Venezuela, where maracas are anything but an accompaniment instrument.

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