Jon Ciliberto | 3 JUN 2022
It is not unreasonable to suppose that one avenue to enjoying a piece of music involves having an understanding of how what is heard is made — physically (the material) and compositionally (the form). After centuries of classical music, the first has become fairly basic knowledge: a flute sound is made by breathing into a chamber, a violin sound by a bow scraping a string, and so forth.
“Experimental music” experiments in both matter and form, and both can be disorienting to a listener: one often has no idea how that sound was made and often less idea how the composer dictated how a performer then makes it. I find the best approach is often to adopt the manner of a listener in the medieval era, first encountering a pipe organ: enjoy the music, and ignore the unknown processes at work if it is a distraction.
Violinist Sarah Plum “began her performing career by winning the gold medal at the International Stulberg Competition in 1983.” While continuing to pursue classical repertoire (her 2015 release, Bela Bartok: Works For Violin, Volume 1), she has also clearly marked off an interest in pursuing new and adventurous music, including an active program of commissions.
Her latest release, Personal Noise, features works for violin and electronics by Mari Takano, Mari Kimura, Kyong Mee Choi, Jeff Herriot, Charles Nichols, Eric Moe, and Eric Lyon (all living composers) and includes four world premiere recordings. All but two of the pieces were written for or commissioned by Plum. Solo performances with electronics often take the form of a dialogue. In a phone conversation, Plum noted that she plays a melody instrument, so it is useful in her solo performances to have the accompaniment of a pre-recorded electronic part (“fixed media”), live processing of her violin, or a combination.
Jeff Herriott’s after time: a resolution (2013), for violin and electronics, introspective and quiet, sees the conversation especially fruitful in glissandic interaction, slow-moving swells of electronic sound naturally mimicking strings while remaining distinct, with the violin in its persistent repetition of a choppy theme seeming perhaps the more electronic in manner. Here “the electronics include both live processing of the violin and playback of pre-recorded material, both of which are somewhat randomized.” The score provides that the performer can pick fragments from a selection.
Eric Moe’s Obey Your Thirst (2014) for violin and fixed media began with violinist Mari Kimura’s development of a method of playing subharmonics on the violin and a slogan for Sprite soda. In a 2016 interview, Moe wrote regarding subharmonics in the piece: “It’s an octave below the lowest note of the instrument, and it comes a good ways into the piece. It’s like the jaws of Hell opening up when it’s combined with a pitch-shifted springdrum roar.” [Art, Music, NC Magazine, Vol. VII, No. 7, July 2016]
The CD’s booklet explains that “Kimura herself discovered a counterpart to traditional harmonics in the early 1990s [by] experimenting with notes on the G string, [she] found that she was able to wrest sounds as much as an octave lower than violin’s lowest natural note, the G string’s open G.” Kimura “spent several years perfecting the technique, which she calls subharmonics.”
Obey Your Thirst opens with a burst of sounds that are not immediately recognizable — a voice? percussion? — which then reveal as a percussive accompaniment to the live violin performance. The percussion is frequently soaked in reverb, in contrast with the violin, which is more naturally recording-studio dry by comparison. The violin maintains a dialogue with itself: dynamic and highly declarative phrases, beneath which a quieter substrate resumes through the piece.
The CD also features a work composed by Kimura herself, Sarahal, for two violins and interactive electronics,” in which Plum is joined by Grammy Award-winning violinist Yvonne Lam.
Experimental music that incorporates recordings, or electronics that process live performance, always includes a tension between the score and the performance. Plum admitted that this also takes the form of lining up performance with sometimes unpredictable electronic elements, and her more accurate recordings allowed her to achieve the results the score dictates.
According to the composer’s notes, Eric Lyon’s Personal Noise with Accelerants for violin and fixed media is “an articulated noise composition in which the formal structure is generated with white noise. Structural decisions determine such attributes as the basic character of sections, length of sections, pitch materials, directionality, register, rhythmic groupings, and degrees of freedom afforded to the composer at the surface level of the music.”
From this, one would expect a composition in which every element sounds chance generated. Yet, there are extended ascending chromatic passages and, in general, intervals that are clearly restrained within tonic structures, or at least ranges of notes. Thus, one wonders how the “white noise dictated” elements were, in fact, constrained by compositional choices and, therefore, if these (and not white noise) are what are responsible for “the basic character of sections, length of sections, pitch materials, directionality, register, rhythmic groupings.” Perhaps the piece’s title is a play on this interaction: noise is personal by personal association, in some fashion.
Flowering Dandelion (2020) for violin and electronics, by Kyong Mee Choi “paraphrases an intriguing part of the adagio of J.S. Bach’s Violin Sonata in B minor.” Solo performances “with electronics” mean that a solo performer (here violin) plays along with electronic devices (a rather broad category). The playing-along ranges from non-interactive electronics (akin to playing with a recording) to interactive, in which the live performer’s playing actively affects the electronics and/or vice versa. In the simplest form, the latter can take the form of basic electronic effects, e.g., an echo — without the performer making sound, the echo does nothing. The uses that composers put electronic devices to are much more advanced than that, and one can think of the composition as a series of interactions between the performer and devices (or software) that unfold in time, just as a score does.
Trying to map out while listening if the electronics are reactive or not or what compositional choices are made based on the devices is only barely possible: first, it requires an intimate knowledge of the devices and their settings, and second, interactions might not line up in real-time. Thus, I find that in listening to solo performances with electronics, it is more fruitful to engage texturally or as pure sound and not worry overly about how the violin is “causing” the electronic noise. One does wonder, however, if the lack of a “performer” of the devices is simply down to the impossibility of a single person “performing” the devices to the end that the composer wishes.
Despite the often-broad distinction between sonic profiles, Plum’s violin and the electronics occupy a common dramatic and ideological space in Choi’s work. They together move through what feels clearly like a narrative, despite easy steps or markers along the way.
In Charles Nichols’ Il Prete Rosso (2014), for amplified violin, motion sensor, and computer, “a computer musician triggers” various electronic effects that process the amplified violin. A motion sensor on the violinist’s bow arm allows the performer to control some aspects of the effects. Thus, the piece allows for a wide range of in-performance interpretations from both players.
Mari Takano’s Full Moon (2008) for violin and electronics is the CD’s most ambitious and far-ranging work, moving through a series of episodes from lushly dramatic to lyrical to fractured and chaotic in a Frank Zappa in a blender way to passages that remind this listener of The Residents. The composer’s notes describe “Quasi-improvisatory parts with nightmarish undertones, a gently lunatic waltz, a roguish violin dance, a 14-part counterpoint, a quasi-minimalistic web of pizzicati, and a heavily rocking passage echoing electric Miles Davis.” Plum’s playing is deft and astonishing throughout. I most easily here forget the fact that the performance was to a recording.
Although seemingly narrowly premised on “solo violin with electronics,” the works on this CD show something of the range of possibility, in particular in terms of how a live performer works against a “fixed” form (a recording or other non-interactive technology). It also presents the clear, expressive possibilities (Flowering Dandelion) when the performer has mastered the work. ■