Review: Sonorities Festival of Contemporary Music

Martin Adams, The Irish Times, 8 mai 2001

The four days of the Sonorities Festival of Contemporary Music offered a hectic round of musical and other events. There were nine concerts between Thursday night’s (which was reviewed in this newspaper on Saturday) and the final concert on Sunday afternoon, plus a steady round of research presentations, discussion groups and lectures. The last included an appetising overview by Síle O’Modhrain of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s plans for its Dublin-based offshoot, MediaLab Europe.

One major loss was the cancellation of Sunday night’s concert by the Lotus String Quartet (and their subsequent one in Dún Laoghaire) because of the illness of a player. They were to give the première of Kevin O’Connell’s String Quartet, plus important 20th-century works.

So the weekend was dominated by electroacoustic music, largely because the festival was hosting the annual conference of Sonic Arts Network, a British-based concert, education and information resource with a worldwide membership, plus affiliated institutions. SAN’s mission to develop the relationship between technology and music was reflected in an impressive array of electronic gadgetry and inventiveness at each of its concerts.

Technology’s temptations are not easily resisted; nor is its diversity easily controlled. Sound creation and reproduction have developed enormously. Axioms of what art should be have lost their power. This is a world of true and idealistic anarchy, where each work seeks to define its own terms.

The most emphatic affirmations of that kind tended to have a message. For example, Richard Whitelaw’s Urban Odysseys 2 uses the voices of homeless young people in collage with natural and artificial sound; Nikos Stavropoulos’s New Order applies similar techniques to speak of globalisation and Americanisation. Their emphasis excludes interpretation. Other collages of everyday sound, such as Robert Mackay’s Postcards of the Summer and John Levack Drever’s Phonographies of Glasgow, leave things more open.

Some of the electroacoustic works were more obviously musical, albeit with metaphorical undertones. Iain McCurdy’s Collapse “focuses upon the gestural characteristics of various materials under stress and strain”, and Peter Manning’s In Memoriam CPR evokes the Canadian Pacific Railway, yet neatly side-steps depiction. They typified Alistair MacDonald’s observation in the programme note for his own The Tincture of Physical Things, that “much electroacoustic music tries to perform a sort of alchemy… to change the nature of “ordinary” materials.’

Apart from a concert of jazz improvisations, only six of the 33 works played from Friday to Sunday used “ordinary” instruments. Examples were Michael Clarke’s Prism, which filters trumpet notes through a battery of spatially separated microphones and loudspeakers, and Rodrigo Sigal’s Tolerance II for tape and cello, an absorbing exploration of contrasting yet coexisting sonorities. But the highlight among these pieces was Phases by the Argentine Horacio Vaggione (b. 1943). Its language was a blast from 30 years past; but its tension between pre-recorded sound and the natural sonorities of piano and clarinet — wellplayed by Philip Mead and Linda Merrick — had a concerto-like focus which rendered irrelevant any concerns on that account.

For electroacoustic music, the search for order within an infinite range of possibilities seems inescapable. Some composers succumbed to technology’s temptations, and the gestural language was sometimes too reminiscent of composers as far back as Varèse. But it seems significant that most pieces lasted between nine and 15 minutes, and that so many differing works should have large-scale patterns in common: closure initiated by a late recall of the opening, ABA structures with variation or compression in the last section, recurrence of distinctive events, etc.

Nothing suggested a resolution of these issues more than the music of the conference’s guest composer, Robert Normandeau. Born in Québec City in 1955, Normandeau seeks to define syntax and meaning, often by borrowing concepts from cinema — colour, framing, closeup, and so on. He commands the medium through total craftsmanship, an acute and critical ear, material precisely fitted to its purpose and a control of time and unfolding ideas which is almost symphonic. Erinyes, commissioned by the Sonorities Festival, left the impression of complete integrity and of things to be discovered on repeated hearing. Clair de terre was more demanding. One of the most telling points about its enormous variety was that the 35 minutes it lasted felt more like 20.

… total craftsmanship, an acute and critical ear, material precisely fitted to its purpose and a control of time and unfolding ideas which is almost symphonic.