SEAMUS (Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States) releases its 28th volume of works by its member composers, representing the newest trends and ideas in electroacoustic music, and using instruments as traditional as the saxophone and as obscure as candles and Nintendo Wii remotes alongside all manner of electronic sounds.
The title of Kyong Mee Choi’s Train of Thoughts is a clever play on words: the piece was inspired by the experience of being on a train where one hears myriad different sounds as the train moves through different environments. Choi abstracts this concept to portray how our mind literally goes on trains of thought. To this effect, the piece begins with a train whistle and the deep, rumbling sound of a train moving along its tracks. From here, we hear banal ambient sounds: zipping luggage, pouring water, atonal-Muzak vibraphone, crunching potato chips. From this ho-hum state of mind, we enter a dark, brooding tunnel, as the sounds become more abstracted with the lone, quiet, and lightly persistent interruption of a train whistle reminding us of the physical world. We briefly exit the tunnel hearing the same unzipping and water-pouring sounds from before, before re-entering in a more frantic state of mind. The piece ends in mental stasis.
Brian Topp’s Ljós is inspired by a set of poems, “Light” by Souvankham Thammavongsa, depicting various interpretations of light. While the piece doesn’t have a direct connection to the poems, Topp often found himself reading the poems during the composition process for inspiration. The piece opens with dramatic, glitchy gestures in the electronics with the saxophone wailing above, then imitating these gestures through use of repeated notes and the extreme low register of the instrument. The texture alternates between thinned out passages for saxophone alone and sections with electronics. Much of the work portrays an imitative relationship between the soprano saxophone, played by Justin Massey, and electronic elements gathered through an extensive vocal improvisation with vocalist/composer Katerina Gimon.
Akiko Hatakeyama’s ち — chi is a live, interactive performance piece. A homemade instrument called a myaku senses the luminescence of candles placed on a surface, which controls the amplitude of unique sound files. The performer thus creates the piece, both sonically and visually, by lighting, moving and blowing out the candles. All aspects of the candle, from the thickness, length, and candleholder, affect the sound quality. The performer is also inevitably influenced by the melting wax, smoke, and intensity of light from the burning candles during the performance. No doubt the performers own personal and cultural associations with candles also shapes the atmosphere. The piece is undergirded with a steady, slightly pulsing drone triggered through the movement of candles, while voice and other sparse electronic sounds come and go throughout.
Robert McClure’s in excess is a reflection on the absurd amount of waste humans produce everyday, especially the cynical overuse of plastic packaging to create a sense of luxury for the consumer. The sound of plastic packaging forms most of the sonic material used in the piece, along with balloons simulating the sound of oboe multiphonics.
Using Nintendo Wii Remotes to trigger her electronics, Chi Wang’s Peony Garden in inspired by the Chinese traditional Kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu. Using percussive electronic sounds, the work evolves through a steady growth of density in the electronics, before introducing recorded and processed voices from the original opera, creating in her words, “a reimagined restructuring of the essential elements of the original Kunqu opera.”
“As with many things in this world, however, the beautiful and the grotesque often inhabit the same spaces.” In his notes for In His Hands, Lucas Marshall Smith reflects on the growth and normalization of hateful rhetoric as a persuasive tool. He processes his feelings on it through the lens of his upbringing in the Baptist church and the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric he was first exposed to there. Quoting from Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and select passages from the Bible, Smith uses his own voice to deliver these imposing messages. Juxtaposed against the opening and closing passages where Smith sings religious hymns in harmony with himself, the two powerful statements on religion stand in unresolved contrast to each other, mirroring the constant ebb and flow of how such powerful ideas are at all times used for both good and evil, for both condemning and redeeming.
Fang Wan’s Origin is an interactive piece based on recordings of traditional Chinese percussion instruments. Composed using the Kyma platform, the work explores a range of ethereal ambient harmonies and electronic sounds in dialogue with subtle integration of traditional Chinese material. The ethnographic nature of these sounds is not front and center in Origin, instead they are primarily considered as sounds outside of their cultural context. A brief moment of processed Chinese spoken text is the exception to this rule however, as the immediacy of hearing a human voice speaking linguistic fragments is too powerful to avoid conjuring images of the context from which they spring.
Caroline Louise Miller’s Subsong directly references “sub song”, which is the practice of young birds singing snippets of their songs to themselves as improvisations or experiments. It also indirectly references subwoofers, which feature prominently in the piece, and hints at the subterranean workings of the electronics. Many of the sounds used are sampled from recordings Miller made in a cement cube, mixing these heavily reverberant sounds with bass-driven electronics sounds commonly heard in hip-hop. By also using studio techniques to digitally interrupt and create glitchy sounds, we are keenly aware of both the human and machine elements fused in this piece.
SEAMUS members can stream the tracks below. Sign up now for access!
Kyong Mee Choi: Train of Thoughts (2017)
Brian Topp: Ljós (2017)Justin Massey, soprano saxophone; Brian Topp, electronics
Akiko Hatakeyama: ち – Chi (2016)Akiko Hatakeyama, electronics
Robert McClure: in excess (2017)
Chi Wang: Peony Garden (2017)Chi Wang, electronics
Lucas Marshall Smith: In His Hands (2017)Lucas Marshall Smith, voice and electronics
Fang Wan: Origin (2017)Fang Wan, electronics
Caroline Louise Miller: Subsong (2017)