Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Admittedly, because of my being friends/associates with a couple of the composers on the program, I wasn’t sure at first as to whether I would write a review on this concert, which took place last night at Atlanta’s Eyedrum. But by the time the last note was struck at the end of the program, it was necessary to do so.

The show was produced by Mark Gresham, a writer for Creative Loafing magazine in town and a composer whom I’ve had the pleasure of being included with on past Atlanta Composer Group shows. For this show- the first he’s produced in many years- Gresham culled performers and composers not just from the new music repertoire in general but from the Atlanta area in particular. One of the best aspects of the show was its’ variety- while most of the pieces featured percussion of some kind, played by Georgia State instructor and local percussionist Stuart Gerber, the program featured a wide spectrum of pieces that use percussive elements in different ways.

The program started proper with Giorgio Battistelli’s “Il Libro Celibe (The Bachelor’s Book),” a rather avant garde work where the performer opens up a book-like box, with each “page” a different tool that the performer uses to create different sounds, starting with something as simple as ripping sheets of paper and gradually getting down to more traditional percussive instruments. The next piece was Alexandre Babel’s “Music for Small Audiences,” which continued the show’s move towards simple, but varied percussion pieces that would continue with works like John Luther Adams’ “Roar,” a work where the performer stands at a gong and controls the drones it makes in a way that made me think of a haunting meditative chant taking place in a spacious church; Gresham’s own “Vagabond Drumming, Book II,” a superbly-crafted piece for solo percussion which allowed for some virtuosic percussive performance by Gerber- whom I’ve seen perform before at several neoPhonia concerts at Georgia State); Frederic Rzewski’s “To the Earth,” which had Gerber sitting down, saying a chant to the Earth- duh- while playing some percussive rhythms on flower pots; and Stuart Saunders Smith’s “Songs I-IX,” another very avant garge work where Gerber was asked not just to perform percussive instruments but also “sing” the spoken-word songs that went with the music. Admittedly, this last work was perhaps my least favorite part of the show, but not because it was bad- it just wasn’t as interesting to me as some of the other pieces on the program.

Spread out throughout the program were excerpts of fellow Atlanta composer Darren Nelsen’s electronic piece cycle “12×60,” which he created over a period of 12 weeks last summer, releasing one new 60-second creation a week over that period. Six of the nine pieces included on this program (the entire “12×60” project can be heard at his website were accompanied by visuals created by video artist Al Matthews, which on the one hand struck me as somewhat unnecessary, not just because of the brevity of the pieces, but of their rather cinematic scope as well. Admittedly, part of my feelings regarding the video has to do with the visuals themselves- while the later pieces had more interesting visuals with them (“Hull Popper,” “Scrambled Megs,” and “Bug, Incoming”), the first three with visuals (“Carnival,” “Boom Chime Buzz,” and “Incantation”) seemed rather uninspired in my opinion- there just didn’t seem like enough going on to merit the visuals. As for the pieces themselves, Nelsen’s ear for sound design and using “found sounds” to create the pieces is compelling, and even though I’d heard all of the pieces before (following Darren’s cycle as he was releasing it), upon hearing them again I found myself just as drawn in this time around.

Concluding the program was a series of pieces entitled “Chakras of an Automaton,” by Atlanta-area composer and DJ (and fellow GSU alum) Jennifer Mitchell. I’d first heard “DJ Jen” perform with GSU’s Dr. Nickitas Demos on a piece he performed at one of last year’s Sonic Generator concerts over at Georgia Tech. This time around, Mitchell was accompanied by Gerber in an inspired set of pieces that mixed (no pun intended) percussive rhythms with DJ Jen performing on the turntables in a sonic collaboration that’s fun and musically-compelling.

One of the underlying things I noticed about “Less is More (More or Less” was how Gresham programed pieces that followed more modern ideas of sound design- whether it was combining different percussive sounds or delving into electronic ideas- without really feeling the need to program anything that might be more “accessible.” This isn’t a bad thing, however; the show’s overall success comes from how “outside the box” every work is, and how they all kind of flow into the next one effortlessly, hardly making for dull listening for anyone in attendance.

And yet, as I wrap this up, I realized that I’d forgotten to mention “Stones,” a piece by John Cage student Christian Wolff with a three line “score” lining out what the performers should do with stones and rocks of various shapes and sizes, on various surfaces. Gresham, Nelsen, and Gerber were the performers on the piece, and it was a fascinating and rather loose interpretation of the work that was fun to watch. After, Gresham led the audience in their own attempts at “performing the piece,” as we all received a bag with our own stones when we entered the hall. Needless to say, our rendition wasn’t as interesting.

That would explain why we were in the audience.

Thanks for listening,

Brian Skutle

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