The Charlotte Street Foundation’s hip, industrial performance/installation space La Esquina played host to an evening of electronic art music on Saturday evening for a crowd of around 35 electronic music fans. The Kansas City Electronic Music and Arts Alliance (KcEMA) is in their fourth season of presenting thought-provoking works featuring a plethora of electronically- and acoustically-produced sounds in concerts that give rise to collaborations between composers and performers both local and not-so-local. “Back to the Source Code” featured Omaha-based bassist Jeremy Baguyos in an “electroacoustic homecoming” to the KC metro where he spent nearly a decade growing up.
KcEMA’s Saturday evening program featured two styles of electroacoustic music: those with live, interactive electronics and those known as tape pieces. In a nutshell, an interactive electronic piece features a written score part for the performer as well as carefully planned programming for the computer. Particular sounds or actions by the performer serve as cues for the computer to execute a given sound or even begin recording a loop of what a performer is playing. A performer has some control over the pacing of the piece, and may be allowed to improvise or vamp on a particular section of the music if they see fit. I can think of a much less wordy description of tape music: think classical karaoke with an instrument instead of a voice. There’s a pre-recorded audio part that a performer plays along with and has to match up with, without much room for rubato or improvisation. For either style piece, a team of KcEMA laptopists sat at a table behind the audience with a mixing board and a sea of cords.
Yahaney Inlet by McGregor Boyle, the first in a series of pieces with live, interactive electronic sounds, opened the program with a tenor-register, folk-like melody in the contrabass. The electronics created subtle, sustained synth sounds based on Baguyos’ playing. Very faint bird and insect sounds persisted satisfyingly in the background. A middle section called for more modern string techniques including sul ponticello, col legno, and Bartók pizzicati sounds as the electronics in turn changed substantially.
Andrew May’s Ripped-Up Maps opened with a Bernstein Age of Anxiety-esque melody built from disjunct phrases that spanned the whole range of the contrabass. The computer processing created a catchy, industrial-sounding march rhythm.
This led to the first of several Y2K-esque gaffes occurring throughout the program. Seemingly going along as planned, the piece ended with Baguyos furrowing his brow as he played for half a minute, then stopping and announcing sheepishly, “The computer’s done,” as the sound table crew apologetically turned down the faders for the catchy rhythm. Apparently, the computer got “fixated” on one command or sample and was unable to break out of its cycle. This “happens occasionally” as a performance always generates “different results,” the audience was told.
The program unceremoniously moved on to the world premiere of Kirsten Volness’ Hints and Hauntings. This was perhaps one of the “prettiest” pieces on the program, with fifth-based harmonies in both the contrabass and electronics and lyrical writing for the contrabass. A processed distortion of the contrabass tone led to a jazzy pizzicato solo from Baguyos. The electronics expanded to a wider variety of timbres, from late 90’s-sounding synth pipe organ sounds to water sounds to dense soundmass swells. A crash problem on one or more of the three white MacBooks on the back table led to the evening’s second gaffe where the intermission was moved up so that everyone could restart.
Following the intermission, KcEMA Vice President Andrew Seager Cole’s Sound, Timbre, and Density I commenced with a flurry of string instrument sounds in the mid-upper registers. Martélé playing in the bass was colored by percussive noise. The focus of the piece was timbral transformation rather than melodic development—something that doesn’t always appeal to me, however, a number of well-planned, varied textures in succession kept this piece engaging. I enjoyed hearing a number of amplified low C’s and D’s from the contrabass’ low C extension. A number of extended techniques (behind the bridge playing, sul ponticello, and glissandi) were well executed by Baguyos. The electronics made several notable disappearances. One the most effective moments near the end was the response of the electronics to Baguyos’ playing. Here, several behind-the-bridge pizzicati and an in-front-of-the-bridge pizzicato generated a flurry of activity recalling the opening.
The electronics of Forgotten Dreams were KcEMA President Jason Bolte’s trademark, dense, multi-timbral waves of activity. Baguyos’ part consisted of a number of languid harmonic glissandi, cross-string arpeggios, and behind-the-bridge arpeggios. The piece was built in waves with what seemed to be a number of algorithms and processes applied to each gesture. The piece was one of the most aggressive pieces on the program, with several strong, percussive sub-bass waves in the electronics—one of which actually startled me. A particularly impressive point of repose conjured up imagery of a quiet, mist-covered forest environment as Baguyos played dissonant double-stops.
The first of the two tape pieces on the program, James Sellars’ peppy Radio Sonata brought a startlingly different character to La Esquina with music somewhere between Vaughan Williams, 90’s “tonal” classical, and bubbly early 2000’s synth pop in the vain of The Postal Service. The electronics were catchy, with a mixture of percussive synth, harpsichord, and flute tones. The contrabass playing was impressively in tune, residing mostly in high thumb positions.
The final technical gaffe of the concert came where perhaps least expected by the KcEMA team: in the final tape piece of the program, Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 11. After several minutes of playing and flipping through pages of music, Baguyos was completely lost. A conversation was had about how long the pre-recorded part should be. A duration of 7:28 not 2:28 was finally decided. A back-up CD was brought out and an entirely different piece began.
It is perhaps forgivable and understandable for computers to crash when non-computer software engineers—musicians, mind you!—write layers of code patches for a computer to execute in real time in front of an audience. Admittedly, I am somewhat immune or unsurprised when this happens. It always seems one has a fifty/fifty chance of the computer having a fit or an aneurysm, or working properly—not terribly good odds.
Still, I hope KcEMA can modify their approach to lessen technical foibles in future shows, perhaps more thorough sound checks or upgraded equipment or plans for when something does go wrong that the audience is left thinking things were still according to plan. They’ll have to if they are to draw more people to their diverse programs of interesting new music unlike anything else in Kansas City.
Kansas City Electronic Music and Arts Alliance (KcEMA)
Back to the Source Code featuring Jeremy Baguyos, bass
Saturday, February 19 at 8:00 p.m.
1000 W 25th St, Kansas City, MO
For more information, visit www.KcEMA.net.