Music in Space

Photo by Pedro Rebelo

Music in Space

Sonorities Festival 2005.

For almost a quarter of a century now, the Sonorities new music festival has been held at Queens University Belfast, making this the longest running event of its kind in Ireland. Although electro-acoustic music has always played a role, it has in recent years come to dominate the programme and this is especially apt in light of the Sonic Arts Research Centre opening there last year.

It was officially opened by Karlheinz Stockhausen at Sonorities 2004 and was the brainchild of composer Michael Alcorn and architects Hall & Black Douglas. This dedicated facility, costing four and a half million sterling, is essentially the British centre of excellence for contemporary electro-acoustic music and hosts a number of recording and composition studios as well as the centrepiece Sonic Lab.

The Sonic Lab is something straight out of science fiction and entering it unprepared can be quite a shock. Step inside and you find yourself on a suspended metal grid some 18 feet above the ground, whilst above you a secondary ceiling hides the true height of the space. The seating is arranged around a central table which houses the controls for the surround sound system, although this term does not do justice to a layout which ranks as one of the finest multispeaker layouts in the world.

The ability to dynamically project sound throughout a space is integral to the genre of acousmatic music (electro-acoustic music heard exclusively over loudspeakers) and a number of purpose-built facilities have attempted to tame the technical challenges involved. Tragically, two of the most ambitious no longer exist as they were temporary spaces built for world expositions. The 1958 Brussels World Fair was home to the Le Corbusier/Xenakis Philips Pavilion which used over 400 loudspeakers to present Edgar Varèse’s Poème électronique, and the 1970 Osaka Fair used a giant geodesic dome to perform most of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s works in front of more than a million listeners. The latter was unique in its ability to project sound not only in trajectories above the audience but also, by using a sonically transparent floor, below. It is this ability to project a three dimensional audio field which the SARC Sonic Lab reproduces, implementing four levels of loudspeaker arrays, one at ear level, one in the space below, and two further layers above using a total of 42 speakers. The effect is unique and, when a composition successfully exploits this potential, staggering.

Zappa music

This year’s Sonorities managed to pack 35 events and two installations into nine days (although I ‘only’ managed to experience 15 of these). These included 22 concerts, 4 music theatre events plus 9 talks and workshops. The programming demonstrated a remarkably wide range and a willingness to approach numerous strands of new music activity. This was reflected by the diversity of the two featured composers: the French electronic music pioneer Luc Ferrari and the legendary American composer/rock-musician Frank Zappa. In fact the slogan for this year’s Sonorities was ‘You Call That Music?’, a title taken from one of Zappa’s earlier works but not actually included in the festival.

Friday’s Zappa concert was held in the Ulster Hall and was preceded by performance duo primitiveFailed’s excellent live remix of Zappa soundbites. The main event featured a selection of Zappa’s orchestral works performed by the Ulster Orchestra and conducted by Philippe Nahon. While the first half included the concert’s best performances (Dupree’s Paradise and Naval Aviation in Art? being particularly impressive) the second half seemed unrehearsed with Outrage at Valdez near unrecognisable and G-Spot tornado almost falling apart.

Nevertheless it was refreshing to hear these eclectic works performed in front of an enthusiastic capacity audience. In fact the Friday had already presented some of the most diverse events with a fruit stall improvisation in St George’s market (cut short by neighbouring vendors jealous of the attention!) and a boat tour on the Lagan which presented Martin Parker’s algorithmic composition Auto-Route#2. The evening was finished off by a ‘Club Night’ in The Front Page Bar which featured Israeli eight-piece noise band Lietterschpich who presented a curious theatrical mix; two members played that hip non-instrument the ‘no-input mixing desk’ (a la Toshimaru Nakemura) with accompanying live video mixing whilst two masked performers held poses of extreme anger and occasionally screamed.

‘The loudspeaker is not beautiful’
Saturday’s concerts took place in the Sonic Lab and began with the second in a series of concerts featuring acousmatic compositions which were mostly diffused by their respective composers. Diffusion is the term applied to the act of moving the composition throughout the space using the mixing desk and it is fascinating to watch this utilitarian tool being transformed into an instrument. The master in this regard was Belgian composer and former student of Pierre Schaeffer, Annette Vande Gorne, who has her own 60 speaker facility (the Acousmonium) and who performed her Figures d’espace with unusual grace. SARC was particularly proud to present one of their PhD students and University of Limerick masters graduate Jason E. Geistweidt, who performed A letter from the trenches of Adrianopolis which won this year’s EMS Composition Prize. A concert of unusually sedate improvised music followed, featuring cellist Ulrich Mitzlaff and double bassist Miguel Leiria.

The highlight of the festival was the evening concert with Luc Ferrari. Wednesday’s BBC Invitation Concert had already presented his orchestral piece En tournament d’amour but the concert in the Sonic Lab presented him in control of the genre for which he is most famous. He had already presented his thoughts on the difficulties inherent in acousmatic listening during Thursday’s talk (‘I like looking at beautiful things, the loudspeaker is not beautiful’) and I was looking forward to hearing his music address some of these issues. Ferrari’s tape compositions are narrative journeys through imaginary spaces, compiled by the juxtaposition of innocent field recordings and occasionally composed synthetic regions. The first two pieces Presque rien No. 4 (1990–98) and Presque rien avec filles (1989) trace their roots to the 1970 work which founded Ferrari’s reputation, a kind of musical photography and a reaction to Cage’s ‘music is all around us if only we had ears’. These are masterpieces of twentieth-century music and are profoundly moving.

The late night concert featured trombonist John Kenny and the live computer processing of the young but very talented Chris Wheeler. Kenny includes an Alphorn and an ancient Celtic warhorn, the ‘carynx’, in his sonic arsenal but it is his dazzling musicality and humour which are at the core of his performances. Wheeler, who leads a double life as one of London’s top DJs, produced a refined environment for Kenny’s composition and it was fascinating to see their generation gap bridged so seamlessly.

One of Sonorities 2005’s most impressive traits was its ability to satisfy a wide audience while maintaining specialist appeal. It was a little disappointing then to see so few from south of the border, but this is possibly due to no composers from there being represented. Sonorities is a world class event with representatives from every continent and it deserves far wider acknowledgment from Irish audiences.

Published on 1 July 2005

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