‘Dissolve: Rooms’ presented by STEIM in collaboration with Ensemble MAE

Report by Stan Wijnans. Photos by Theo Howard.

The first edition ‘Rooms’ of the concert platform ‘Dissolve’ explored how to re-conceptualize the performers’ presentation and audience experience of musical space. MAE researches the possibilities to create new sound environments using a combination of live electronics and acoustic instruments exploring the creation of innovative listening experiences. In an unconventional approach to space in musical composition, including how technology can be used to break open the conventions of space, the ‘physical’ as well as the ‘musical’ space are re-conceptualized (http://ensemble-mae.com/site/). The ‘Dissolve: Rooms’ premiered compositions by Hugo Morales: ‘Cavities’ and Ezequiel Menalled: ‘NN’. The pieces were rehearsed and partly technically researched at STEIM in advance to the concerts. Additional compositions such as ‘(Amsterdam) Memory Space’ by Alvin Lucier, ‘Nocturne for BJM’ by Matt Wright, ‘Pea Soup II’ by Nicolas Collins and ‘Big Blue Blazer’ by Teodora Stepancic, that highlight the earlier mentioned conceptual elements, were also rehearsed and presented (fig. 1.).

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Figure 1. Ensemble MAE.

Morales explored his design of a ‘meta-instrument’ within his new compositional development ‘Cavities’. He designed an innovative sound processor that responds to different simultaneous vibrations and resonances generated by 8 acoustic instruments. The aim was to create an interaction between an inner and outer musical space. To achieve this, contact microphones were attached inside the acoustic instruments to be able to process the inner spatial behaviour of the resonating instrument. The derived feedback resonances of double bass, bass clarinet, trombone and electric guitar put 4 big spirals (fig. 2.) in a vibrating motion (each instrument has its own spring allocated).

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Figure 2. ‘Cavities’ Spiral instrument.

In this way the springs were controlled by a ‘block of activity’ generated by the allocated instrument. The ensemble sat in front of the instrument to be able to concentrate on the control and creation of the resonating sounds coming from the inside of their instruments. ?Attached to each of the 4 springs are two small ‘built in’ speakers, one at the bottom that reproduces the sound from the acoustic instrument and sets the spring in motion, and one at the top that acts as a microphone to register the sound produced by the spring. The sound from each spring is amplified by one of 4 speakers that are set up around the audience. In this way, the inner spatial sounds are reproduced in quadraphonic outer space. Morales describes the spatial exploration of the meta-instrument as ‘the creation of confluence between the distinct internal resonant spaces or “rooms” of the acoustic instruments and the actual performance space as the piece unfolds’. The imaginary inner spaces were artificially recreated to ‘outer’ space by various reverb processes that progressively change during the piece.? Additionally, the sounds from keyboard and the inner spaces of the violin, recorder trigger and vibrate two aluminium plates that are balancing on two small speakers on a table (fig. 3.).

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Figure 3. Two aluminium plates balancing on two small speakers.

The sound of these vibrating plates is additionally played with the sticks of the percussionist, who also occasionally puts little paperclips on the vibrating spirals to change the generated spiral sounds. Morales had also built a pre-amplifier with volume faders that are operated by Yannis  who controls the feedback and resonances coming from the ‘inner’ acoustic instruments during the performance (fig. 4.).

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Figure 4. ‘Cavities’ pre-amplifier.

Due to the fact that every instrument resonates differently, the emerging sounds depend on which acoustic instruments are present.? Morales writes about the score for ‘Cavities’: ‘A set of predetermined constraints and blocks of sound relationships have been established, within these the performers have to listen, react, follow visual cues and decide the durations that will conform each of the segments, consequently these decisions would affect musical form and eventually final overall duration’ (fig. 5.).

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Figure 5. Extract from score ‘Cavities’.

As a result a low ‘growling and howling’, and ‘breaking and crackling’ musical composition emerges caused by the needed low frequencies produced by the instruments to be able to achieve a satisfying vibration of the springs. The blurred and intermingled musical identities of instruments and spirals become part of a singular complex sound mass.

The new composition ‘NN’ by composer Ezequiel Menalled was inspired by Luigi Nono’s composition ‘…sofferte onde serene…’( 1974-1977), hence the title ‘NN’. ‘NN’ starts with a violin solo (Anna McMichael) with the bow bouncing on the strings and alternately playing soft middle high and very high sliding tones. When blowing and breathing sounds from the trombone (Koen Kaptijn) and other abstract sounds from the ensemble are added, the foundation for the outspoken texture of timbre and bubbling density of the composition is established. Later in the piece, the density is extended by adding low pitches and, as I would call it, ‘rumbling instrument scratching’. A beautiful resonance of high instrument tones amplify the perception of the spatialisation of the room, in this way accentuating the aesthetics of the cadence and quality of sonic timbre.
In a personal conversation with the author, Menalled had explained that he had split the musical notation of his composition into two halves, classical-derived notation in the beginning (fig. 6.)

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Figure 6. Extract from classical notation ‘NN’.

and ‘proportional’ notation in the last part (fig. 7.).

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Figure 7. Extract from proportional notation ‘NN’.

He stressed that notation has to be at the service of the comprehension of the musical idea. Although this form of musical notation is usually linear, ‘NN’ adds a ?-rather confusing- element to his concept: apart from hearing and seeing the music that is produced by the instrumentalists, parts of the music are electronically reproduced by live recordings of the music. These samples are played back with a time delay, and with added sound manipulations performed by Yannis Kyriakides. The live sampling process was executed by the software sampler ‘Lisa’ (STEIM). The samples are played back through 3 mono speakers strategically positioned around the audience. This musical concept implies that a process of reordering the different layers of the musical relationships between space, rhythm and time takes place: the musicians are confronted with their music in two different manners. This aspect of the performance is especially perceptible at the end of the piece, when the musicians put their instruments down, and all the music was suddenly stopped a minute or so later by a press on a computer button by Kyriakides. Only a quick fading out of the used computer reverb revealed this hidden musical element of ‘NN’. Menalled describes the musical process in ‘NN’ as follows: ‘expect to stress this relation [between musician and speaker] by homogenizing the musical material played live and reproduced in the speakers’.

‘(Amsterdam) Memory Space’ by Alvin Lucier is a site-specific musical performance for a variable number of instrumentalists together with electronic recording, graphic notation, or memories of the city where the performance takes place. In this way, the outer spaces of the city are musically recreated. According to the location of the performance, the title of the composition changes in ‘(name of city) Memory Spaces’. During the ‘Dissolve: Rooms’ concert, the musicians are spatially positioned around the audience to create a perception of the sounds coming from different directions much in the same way as in a city. The recorded sound samples from Amsterdam are played back during performance on headphones to the musicians. These samples are accompanied by whistling, ticking and scratching sounds produced live on the acoustic instruments in this way mimicking the sounds they hear on their headphones. However, in contrast to a noisy city, the produced sounds by the acoustic instruments are soft, modest and organised. The musicians are carefully listening to each other, comparable to the city traffic that pays careful attention to the pace of the starting and stopping movements in the city. At this time, the recorded characteristic tingling bells from the Amsterdam trams gave the composition its typical site-specific features.

In ‘Nocturne for BJM’ (2004) by Matt Wright the musicians are spatially repositioned again to sit in a circle in front of the audience. MAE creates an eruption of sounds in a battle of musical and abstract material. In the piece the recurrence of the nervous and manic drum parts of snare and hihatt by Orlando Aguliar (fig. 8.) is alternated and intermingled with the fast and often high beeping sounds of the other instruments of the MAE.

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Figure 8. Percussionist Orlando Aguliar.

The audience is surrounded by the 4 speakers that output the electronic sounds produced by Kyriakides’ laptop. During the performance, Kyriakides fanatically operates a turning knob that enables him to manipulate the effects processing of the computer sound, in this way contributing to the general inciting atmosphere. Wright calls his musical concept ‘music at the edge of collapse’ (http://www.matt-wright.co.uk/biography.html).

The piece ‘Pea Soup II’ by Nicolas Collins (who studied composition with Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan University, US) highlights the spatial acoustics of the architecture of the performance space. 3 wind instrumentalists from the MAE walk around in the room to shape the architectural melodies and contribute to the spatial acoustics of the resonating feedback (fig. 9.).

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Figure 9. Trombonist Koen Kaptijn.

The feedback they create is altered every time it starts to build by an automatic process of phase shifters that nudge the pitch of the feedback to a different resonant frequency. A wonderful mixture of the sounds from the instruments and the room acoustics that reflects the acoustic characteristics of the performance space is created: the space of the room is sonically bouncing and resonating towards the audience. Technology acts as ‘an interface between musical and social structures’ (http://www.nicolascollins.com/contact.htm ‘long bio’).

In ‘Big Blue Blazer’ by Teodora Stepancic, the perception of audio-visual space is influenced by two members of the MAE walking around the performance space with stage lights. These moving spotlights highlight different musicians of the ensemble, members of the audience or places in the space. In the meantime, the trombonist (Koen Kaptijn) is also walking around, playing his beautifully lit instrument (fig. 10.).

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Fig. 10. ‘Big Blue Blazer’ Lit trombone Koen Kaptijn.

The composition is built on a basic tonal structure giving the percussionist (Orlando Aguliar) the freedom to run around his set and apparently ‘randomly’ play the percussion instrument nearest to his spatial position. When the music starts to peter out, a fire is lit in the middle of the group of musicians, possibly to visually reposition the spatial centre towards the grouped musicians (although some of whom had actually left the space). The compositional ‘cocktail made of hot water, whisky and fire’, as Stepancic describes it (http://www.freewebs.com/teodorastepancic), is spatially re-focused by a continuous re-ordering of the perception of visual space.

‘Dissolve: Rooms’ was performed in ‘De Kikker’, Utrecht (27.10.09) and STEIM, Amsterdam (01.12.09).

Karolina Bäter recorder
Reinier van Houdt piano
Wiek Hijmans guitar (29-11-09)
Jeroen Kimman guitar (01-12-09)
Koen Kaptijn trombone
Michel Marang Klarinet
Anna McMichael Violin
Orlando Aguliar Percussie
Brice Soniano bass
Yannis Kyriakides live electronics

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