New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival: Acts of Artistic Confidence

This article is about confidence.

After a 4 hour train ride, a 12 hour layover in Chicago, and a 19-hour train ride, I had finally reached Penn Station in Manhattan. On June 23rd my piece Prozium was be played at the Abrons Art Center as part of the 2015 New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival (NYCEMF). During the first two days of this long trek, I encountered a lot of acts of confidence.

I spent some time exploring all the art on display at the Gold Coast Art Fair while in Chicago. There were a few artists whose work stood out to me: Melvin McGee, Kana Handel, and Gabor Koranyi. Of the hundreds of booths that featured some very impressive visual arts, these three artists were my favorite. Koranyi’s art was especially appealing to me due to a technique he employed in all of his works which exaggerates the human figure through the use of curves and circles. At the risk of over simplifying things- think cubism but at the opposite end of the technical spectrum.

Gabor Koranyi

Koranyi was a very nice man who graciously endured my curiosity about his works. What I found most profound about our encounter was the act of confidence he had carried out by displaying somewhere between 15 and 30 pieces that are so similar. Each piece was distinctly beautiful, but they all employed his signature technique.

During intermission at the NYCEMF 8pm concert on Monday, June 22, I met a very nice Danish composer named Kenn Mouritzen. We got into discussing different cultures in Europe. This somehow led to a lengthy discussion about Iannis Xenakis. Kenn told me a revealing anecdote about Xenakis and his daughter. Apparently, her father would sometimes take her canoeing off of the coast of his native Greece in the Mediterranean Sea. Sometimes these outings would be less than safe due to storms and intense waves. Not deterred by a little danger, Xenakis would paddle him and his little girl out to sea and experience all the glory of Mother Nature’s power. Kenn observed that this behavior perfectly captured Xenakis’ character. The mathematician turned architect turned composer was not timid about his aesthetic decisions. His compositional methods were cerebral and detailed, but they were also unique and effective; as evidenced by his legacy. He was confident that his methods were worthy of being shared with the world.

My good friend John Jansen and I recently discussed the role confidence plays in the work of an artist. We pondered the role our own confidence plays in our compositions and in those of others. We have a mutual friend and comrade in new music by the name of Matt Finch. A couple of years ago I saw him play a gig at a venue in Grand Rapids, MI and it truly blew me away. Up to that point I did not know much about Matt’s music. After the concert I offered him a hearty congratulations and said “That…that is what you have to do.” I made that statement due to, perhaps, an ill-conceived assumption that he was still in search of his unique voice, like many of my comrades studying under Bill Ryan at Grand Valley State University. Whether or not that was the case is mere conjecture at this point. But I did notice a lot of the other audience members congratulating him on his successful performance of vivid and intoxicating atmospheric grooves. From that point on I have followed what he has been doing and I am excited to see my friend make a name for himself. He recently released an album on the slashsound label and he has performed with increasing frequency. Whether it was the performance in Grand Rapids a couple years ago, or a gradual series of successes, or a sheer sense of will and direction, something at some point gave Matt a boost to jump into his canoe, despite the possibility of choppy waves and rapid currents, and embark on his artistic voyage.

Koranyi, Xenakis, and Matt Finch, were confident that their aesthetic decisions are worthy of spreading to those who are willing to listen. This type of confidence is one of the first signs of a mature composer.

Having your music performed anywhere takes a lot of confidence, especially if you are sitting in the room when it happens. Luckily, the NYCEMF is a wonderful place to have this done. Other than receiving commissions, the first step one must take to get one’s music performed is submitting it to calls for scores or contacting people in your network about concertizing new music. The nature of the electroacoustic music genre is often experimental, so for some finding the confidence to believe the strange and beautiful sounds you have created are worthy of being shared with the world can be hard. I can assure my readers that I met some of the most down-to-earth and friendly people at this festival. The sense of community was comforting. I had at least one mutual friend with nearly every person I met! If you have an electroacoustic piece, I implore you to submit to next year’s festival.

I was only at the festival for a few days, but I will share some details about my favorite performances.

Eric Chasalow’s Scuffle and Snap is a playful piece for violin and electronics. Mari Kimura performed energetic pizzicato passages broken up by familiar and tuneful sounding bowed phrases. The electronic media interacts with the plucked strings to create driving rhythmic polyphony. At other points, glassy pads create an ethereal harmonic backdrop to the bowed gestures.

William Dougherty’s piece for bass clarinet and surround-sound fixed media Nyuijd is a breathtaking piece inspired by a ceremony performed by indigenous people of Australia to honor the dead. From the program notes: “…a songman plays the didgeridoo while beating sticks and singing songs…” The clarinetist took on the role of songman and the fixed media took on the role of the surrounding tribesmen beating sticks and echoing rhythms played by Liam Kinson. The performance of rapid key clicks duplicated in the recording engulfs the audience in an eerie cloud of noise. At times, one certainly feels like they are amid furious tribal percussion, but our songman comforts us with his somewhat tuneful baritone gestures.

Tae Hong Park’s Bass X Sung closed out the June 23rd festivities. This piece is a semi-improvisational work for bass guitar and signal processing. The piece began with tidal synth-pads and slowly evolved into a toe-tapping 5/4 groove in the high range of the instrument. This groove grew louder and lower over several minutes with the bassist (Park himself) adding interlocking rhythms and the signal processing adding exciting electronic textures. The way that Park played and interacted with the audience before and after his performance signaled to me that this guy definitely had some experience playing rock music. My suspicion was later confirmed by the composer.

I am not as well-versed as I would like to be in the electroacoustic repertoire. Perhaps that is obvious due to my favorite pieces being for live instruments and electronics. One of the beautiful things about this festival was the diversity of styles. Roughly half the pieces I heard were for fixed media only. Pieces without live instruments are still somewhat foreign to me and they often contain unique chronological developments. The more I hear these types of pieces, the broader my frame of reference becomes. This festival presents twenty-seven concerts of electroacoustic music making it one of the easiest times to immerse yourself in the experimental genre which it hosts. If you are like me, somewhat new to the genre, sometimes your ears can grow fatigued from attempting to actively listen to the multitude of unusual pieces. It is the pieces with live instruments that can give you a somewhat familiar place to take a mental rest. Hubert Howe, director and co-founder of NYCEMF, does an excellent job of curating concerts that are both artistically stimulating and accessible to both artists and patrons of the arts.