Playing with the Post-digital
Since 2016, the Dublin Sound Lab’s Music Current festival has been giving Irish audiences a little sample of the kind of music that is regularly served up at established festivals on the continent such as those at Darmstadt and Donaueschingen. This year’s festival offering was as eclectic as usual but, if there was a theme that united the concerts, it was the interaction of sound and multimedia in the post-digital landscape with many works exploring the line between reality and virtual reality though imaginative video and gaming strategies. This review looks at three of the concerts with a view to giving readers an overall sense of the festival.
Classics and commissions
The festival’s opening concert entitled Re_sett_ings showcased three modern multimedia ‘classics’ – works by Simon Steen-Andersen, Johannes Kriedler and Martin Matalon that have become regular staples of the new music circuit – alongside three world premieres by Irish composer Francis Heery, Irish visual artist Jaki Irvine and Alessandro Massobrio, the recipient of the Music Current festival commission for 2023.
Of the three ‘classics’, both Steen-Andersen’s Study for String Instrument #3, for cello, tape and video (2011) and Kriedler’s BOW for violin, tape and video (2020) explored live interaction with various multimedia elements. While ostensibly a duet, Steen-Andersen’s piece required the performer (cellist Ilse de Ziah) to prerecord a track and video of one part that was then projected back on to them during the performance as they played the other part. To realise this, the live performer sits behind a transparent mesh screen onto which the pre-recorded video is projected, producing a kind of hologram of themselves. Both parts consisted of similar types of material – scratching, scraping, whistling sounds – and the concept of the piece seemed to lie in the optical illusion of never being quite sure whether the sound was emanating from the live performer or the ghostly hologram playing directly in front.
Kriedler’s BOW was a somewhat simpler and witty affair. It featured a solo violinist (Feilimidh Nunan) whose bow stroke movements were imitated by a series of simple animated shapes – lines, boxes, envelopes – on the screen behind. As with many of Kriedler’s light-hearted works there wasn’t much in the way of deep concept detectable other than the comedic effect of seeing some very stereotyped new music techniques – again, scratching and scraping – synchronised to a low-budget and slightly whimsical video part.
In contrast, Martin Matalon’s Traces V for clarinet and electronics was a purely sonic affair. Beginning with a simple slap tongue ostinato and some trills, the dialogical nature of the piece soon became apparent as each gesture set off a corresponding response in the electronic part through the live coordination of sound patches. As it progressed this dialogue developed from a relatively sparse opening into a richly sonorous texture that seemed to consist of several layers superimposed simultaneously. The difficult technical challenges of the piece were well navigated by clarinettist Paul Roe.
The first premiere of the concert was Heery’s Towards a Soteriological Theory of Bog Bodies for piano (Izumi Kimura), synthesiser (Heery) and electric guitar (Shane Latimer). It began with a deep cavernous sound that after several minutes gave way to the natural sounds of birdsong as the two improvising musicians became more involved. Kimura mostly worked the inside of the piano, drawing out a range of metallic reverberations that blended with the eerie grinding emanating from Latimer’s bowed electric guitar. While some of the sounds produced were certainly interesting – and one could imagine sections of the piece forming atmospheric soundtrack material – the loose, mostly improvised structure did come across as a little flat for a concert performance and the sculptural approach would have been more at home in a sound art or installation context.
Massobrio’s Calanchi for piano (Kimura) and guitar (Latimer) was described in the programme notes as being, in some way, a sister piece to Heery’s work and, being written for piano and guitar, there was some similarity in the soundworld. Although it took a more structured approach and seemed intent on exploiting all of the possible sounds that could be extracted from the piano and the guitar, the first half of the piece didn’t really coalesce into a coherent whole. A more concentrated drone section towards the conclusion left a much stronger impression.
The best of the three premieres was Irvine’s Re_sett_ing_s, for live video and improvising chamber ensemble consisting of flute (Joe O’Farrell), violin (Cora Venus Lunny), piano (Kimura) and drum kit (Sarah Grimes). The video portion was impressive with a series of trippy animations of lunar landscapes morphing into patterns of beads, stones and spirals. The ensemble accompanied the imagery very well with structured improvisations for most of the work’s duration even if their coherence seemed to drop off slightly towards the finish.
Jaki Irvine’s Re_sett_ing_s performed by Dublin Sound Lab at the Project Arts Centre (Photo: Music Current)
A gun as a microphone
Cold Sweat by German composer Michael Maierhof is the first instalment in a series of ‘home operas’ that are designed to be performed in ‘domestic spaces, living rooms or public places’; the venue for this production was the library of the Contemporary Music Centre. Each of these works is based on a movie with Cold Sweat based on the 1970 gangster movie of the same name directed by Terence Young and starring Charles Bronson, James Mason and Liv Ullmann.
The focus of this ‘micro opera’ was a single scene in the movie where James Mason’s gangster character is slowly dying, having received a gunshot wound while at the same time keeping a couple (Bronson and Ullmann) and their daughter hostage. According to the programme notes, the opera aimed to ‘spotlight Mason’s long, slow demise’, in keeping with the operatic tradition of the extended death scene.
The production seemed to treat the Mason’s demise in reverse and there was a definite comic aspect to the production that was evident as soon as the audience entered, being greeted by the victim lying in a chalk outline on the ground while an investigator in a forensic jumpsuit took pictures of the body. When the opera began proper, the character stood up to receive an application of make-up and to fix his hair. He then slumped against the wall under a screen, which showed broken frames from the actual films itself, and remained in this position for virtually the whole of the performance.
Musically, the opera drew on electronically manipulated material from the film’s soundtrack. There was no conventional operatic singing, but the character did have a ‘gun’ that contained a microphone; through this he produced distorted breathing sounds that interacted with music coming through the speakers surrounding the audience. The gun was later exchanged for a flute mouthpiece that produced a more drone-like, vibrating sound.
Certain Brechtian elements such as witty captions that appeared on the screen, and the frequent reappearance of the make-up artist to apply some finishing touches, gave the performance a certain tongue-in-cheek melodrama that sat at odds with the earnestness of the accompanying soundworld. However, quite what it all added up to in the finish was left very much open and one imagines that most audience members left with perhaps more questions than answers.
Michael Maierhof’s Cold Sweat at the Contemporary Music Centre (Photo: Music Current)
The closing concert of the festival featured the Nadar Ensemble from Belgium – a group known for their inter-disciplinary incorporation of new technology in their explorations of contemporary music as well as a unique blend of absurdist and slapstick theatre. Doppelgänger was certainly an appropriate title for the concert as running through each piece was the duplication of the performer through various means, both technological and non-technological. Their programme cleverly drew on historical precedents of this approach and included two short films: the first by movie pioneer Georges Méliès, L’Homme Orchestre (1900), in which the director managed to conjure up six Doppelgängers of himself through a painstaking process of montage, and the second, the famous ‘Mirror Scene’ from Duck Soup (1933) by the Marx brothers, in which Harpo duplicates Groucho’s movements in a missing mirror to comedic effect.
The first live piece of the concert was Pierre Jodlowski’s OUTERSPACE (2018), for trombone (Thomas Moore), audio and video, which explored the disorienting effects of virtual space made possible by modern technologies. A large screen behind the trombonist provided an aperture into an impersonal, dark room containing three computer screens showing encrypted images. As the trombonist moved their instrument, the view into the room moved in sync as if the end of the trombone functioned as a stereoscope. What followed was a compelling piece of absurdist music theatre somewhat reminiscent of Mauricio Kagel but slightly more sinister with white smoke and masked avatars of the trombonist appearing later in the room.
From this highly sophisticated use of technology, the next piece – Jessie Marino’s Rot Blau – offered a complete contrast that harked back to the tradition of fairground theatrics. Beginning completely motionless, two characters (Yves Goemaere and Pieter Matthynssens) faced the audience wearing wigs and gloves in matching red and blue colours. They then proceeded to elaborate an array of synchronised movements on the table in front of them – finger tapping and slapping – that was visually as well as rhythmically mesmerising. A middle section in darkness, involving further permutations with lights in plastic cups and animal sounds, offered a humorous contrast before the return of the light and the opening ‘A’ section. The formal abstraction of the piece combined with blistering accuracy only served to foreground the moments of human warmth towards the end as the characters adopted a seemingly more playful disposition towards one another.
Play of a very different nature was the subject of Stefan Prins’ Generation Kill which was easily the darkest work on the programme. The piece was scored for live cello (Matthynssens) and percussion (Goemaere) but like Steen-Andersen’s piece from the opening concert, it featured live electronics and two video-projections on screens placed directly in front of the performers. At the front of the stage, two other ensemble members used hand-held game controllers to ‘control’ the live and virtual musicians. Through clever lighting effects, the audience was never quite sure whether the sounds were originating from the ‘real’ or the ‘virtual’ musician. The work’s soundworld was a mixture of extended techniques, electronic interference and percussion that were released in rigorously controlled bursts of energy. The overall disturbing detachment of the piece culminated with the inclusion of footage from American drone attacks near its conclusion that added up to a powerful reflection on the increasingly blurred boundaries between reality and virtuality.
The final piece in the concert – Michael Beil’s Key Jack – was the most compelling exploration of the dislocation between the aural and the visual facilitated by modern technology. Written for ‘pianist without piano’, live video and tape, the work traversed through a range of pianistic material from simple scalic passages to sections of Rachmaninov’s Suite for Two Pianos, all of which were mimed by the live ‘pianist’ and two video versions of themselves on either side. Performed in a deadpan style with astonishing accuracy by Elisa Medinilla, the work was a virtuosic tour de force of coordination and memorisation between the live, video and tape elements.
Michael Beil’s Key Jack (Photo: Music Current)
Since moving from the Smock Alley Theatre to the Project Arts Theatre last year, Music Current seems to have made new inroads with the public who turned out in greater numbers this year than was the case with previous festivals. The better acoustic of the Project and the theatre’s long experience at the experimental edge of Irish theatre seemed a more comfortable fit than the shoebox acoustic of Smock Alley. If one wanted to experience the very latest cutting-edge trends in new music, then this was the event to come to and it could perhaps have benefited even more if it occurred at a little more distance from New Music Dublin, which takes place this week. Nevertheless, much of the credit for the festival’s longevity must go to festival director Fergal Dowling whose enthusiasm for the fringes of contemporary new music continues to be reflected in the adventurous programming that makes the Music Current festival a hidden gem in Ireland’s new music calendar.
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Published on 20 April 2023
Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.