Walk into a hall to hear a contemporary-music concert and you’re often faced with a table, a laptop, and a couple of speakers on the stage floor. The performance may have been carefully planned and rehearsed, and the music it offers may be sophisticated; but as a performance, an experience for the audience, it doesn’t feel very promising.
“I could be home listening to this on a CD,” says Steve Antosca, the Washington-based composer.
Antosca and Roger Reynolds, another composer and professor at the University of California, are setting out to explore a more thoughtful, and engaging, use of technology, and of the way that music is integrated with the space where it’s performed. They’ve pursued those explorations in two weeks of lectures and demonstrations under the rubric “Changes: Seasons,” a project with an impressive gaggle of academic and institutional sponsors. It culminates Sunday night in I.M Pei’s East Building Atrium of the National Gallery, under the rubric “a concert at the crossing point of music, architecture, technology, and art.”
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The concert also marks the inauguration of a new performing ensemble in Washington: the National Gallery of Art New Music Ensemble, a loose collective of high-flight performers from around the country who will probably vary considerably if not entirely from one concert to another. “Every program has different demands,” says Stephen Ackert, head of the National Gallery’s music department. There are three performances scheduled for next year, including one in conjunction with the upcoming Andy Warhol exhibition. Saturday’s program includes some notable contemporary music specialists, like Bill Kalinkos, the bass clarinetist of the group Alarm Will Sound, or the percussionist Ross Karre, who plays with the ensemble red fish blue fish.
“Changes: Seasons” continues explorations that Antosca and Reynolds began with a performance called “Sanctuary,” also in the National Gallery, in 2007. One idea is to examine how music can redefine a familiar space.
“It’s a very, very different experience,” Antosca said last week, sitting with Reynolds in a coffee shop preparatory to presenting a lecture-demonstration at American University, “when you walk in [to the atrium] and view musicians on different levels and sound coming from different levels and sound moving around the space. You’re using technology not just to move sound around, but you’re using it in conjunction with the architectural space itself.”
The technology, in short, becomes a link between music and architecture. It’s “one of the things that allows music to be played in hostile environments,” Reynolds says.
Theirs is hardly a new quest. Composers have been experimenting with ways to link music and architecture through technology virtually since “technology” -- in this context, generally a catchall term for recording devices, tapes, and, now, computers -- appeared on the scene. Sunday’s concert includes a new performing version of Edgard Varèse’s “Poème électronique,” a work originally composed for tape and designed to occupy the Le Corbusier-designed Phillips Pavilion at the 1958 Universal Exposition in Brussels.
It also features pieces by Antosca (“One becomes Two”) and Reynolds (“Seasons: Cycle I”) that involve live processing of sound, refracting the music from the instruments into a whole new spectrum.
Music is often said to have its own architecture: it creates a space that the listener figuratively moves through, with a structure that either does or doesn’t hold it together. Antosca and Reynolds aren’t explicit, however, about the relationship of this to actual, bricks-and mortar architecture. “Changes: Seasons” is about asking questions or planting ideas in the audience’s mind, rather than finding answers.
Reynolds likens the process to dropping stones into a pond, an image invoked by Takemitsu in his own work. “It’s good to drop things in the ponds and then not expect a particular outcome,” he said. But he hopes the result reflects “all the care we’ve tried to take in making this add up to something, without knowing what it is that it adds up to.”
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