The sounds of music

May 25, 1994|By Stan Burns

IT wasn't your ordinary piano recital, in which nervous pre-teen students parade to the upright to deliver renditions of "Water Sprites" while their parents pray silently.

No, the recital at the Peabody Conservatory showcased the work of students in a program called "New Music From the Electronic and Computer Music Department." It was extraordinary in every way!

A Roland A-80 keyboard and synthesizer sat at center stage, dominating the Steinway grand, which for this occasion had been pushed ignominiously into a corner, its keyboard clamped shut.

North Hall at the Peabody is a modest room, a traditional rectangular auditorium with a raised stage and heavy curtains. A larger-than-life portrait of George Peabody hangs on one wall. For this recital, the room was filled with rows of chairs.

A padded bench had been borrowed from the Steinway; it seemed an anachronism in front of the computer table. Red and black electrical cables, secured by gray tape, snaked across the floor and onto the stage.

The waters of the Pacific Rim seemed to merge with the Chesapeake Bay as Asian and Western students presented their work. They ranged from undergraduates and first-year graduate students to a doctoral candidate, and their music pushed the boundaries of sound and music. It stirred me at one point to somber introspection, at another to fanciful delight.

It came from everywhere and nowhere. It emerged from the huge speakers and covered the room, masking its origin as if to distinguish it from the focused sections of an orchestra or chorus. Accustomed to watching musicians perform live, I found it disorienting to hear a "live" performance without seeing the musicians.

At the end of each piece a student stood, smiled and bowed. As we craned our necks to see the creator of each work, I had to wonder if that person was the creator or if the real artist was the machine on stage. If George Peabody were to update this room, how would he array these students, the instruments and machines of their music and an audience wondering which direction to face?

One piece was titled "The Blue Bird," based on a famous Korean children's song, and its creator described its different moods as "a quiet-sounding simple melody" together with "the various tone colors of loud and complicated sound." Those competing moods emerged from the music like heavy footsteps amid a pealing of bells.

A flutist performed "Soundscape for Flute and Tape," combining her playing of the flute with an extraordinary range of flute sounds from a sound tape. The music recalled interludes and interruptions of a chant as the composer explored what she called "the sonic possibilities" between the modern flute and electronic tape.

As she stood below the stage, a shift in lighting cast an eerie shadow of keys on the electronic board across the back of the stage behind her.

At the intermission, I spoke with one student whose work was coming up in the second half. "Good luck," someone said, and he quickly replied, "You can't mess up. You just press 'play.' All this is on tape. My work was finished weeks ago. I got up this morning with awful allergies. Thank goodness I'm not into voice." He wore a black suit and white shirt, and his tie looked like a graphic representation of the information highway blasting into an abstract celestial orbit.

The first piece after intermission was "If Jellyfish Could Talk," composed by six students and described as "a direct digital synthesis software environment in which every element of every note is specified in a text editor and then compiled to create a soundfile output." There were echoes of "Row, row, row your boat" and "See how they run, see how they run," and when the piece ended, applause and bravos commended this collective effort. The program notes indicated that record companies were interested in this one.

Our friend with the allergies and the bold tie pushed the play button for his piece, and the room was instantly dark. "Celestial Stories," he said, "was inspired by gravity and tracks the motions of spheres based on Newton's laws of gravity." The sound was gently melodic with deep, rolling reverberations, and in the background was a primitive beat, first steady, then fading.

After the final bow and after the computer had been turned off, I made my way out, pleased by the work of this extraordinarily gifted and determined group of musicians who used combinations of new technology, old instruments and the laws of physics to communicate a new kind of music.

Outside, the rain fell steadily, and the raindrops made music as they rapped against the cobblestones and wrought iron of Mount Vernon. Umbrellas snapped open like parachutes popping out of outstretched violin bows. The collection of sounds now seemed less random and somehow vaguely familiar.

Stan Burns writes from Baltimore.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.