The venue matters more in music than in the other arts. That has posed a dilemma for Sonic Generator, an Atlanta’s new-music ensemble exploring the high-tech edge of contemporary classical music. Most of the music they play is multi-media, with video or amplification or electronic sounds piped through loudspeakers, so they have specific technical and acoustical needs. Sponsored by Georgia Tech, the virtuoso group has performed in the ballroom of Tech’s Alumni House (too small) and at the Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Auditorium (too sterile).
On Wednesday the group found the best fit yet: the High Museum of Arts’ Hill Auditorium. Its asymmetrical layout has the geometry of a Mondrian painting and, with acres of white wall space, the room is set up to project images above the stage. The sound is bright and the vibe is right, since SG’s modern fare feels more akin to the fast-changing art gallery scene than to the rather fossilized culture of the classical concert hall. It’s interesting to note, too, that a lot of the SG repertoire had premieres in art galleries and museums.
Led by the husband-and-wife duo of percussionist Tom and flutist Jessica Sherwood, the excellent group gave a concert Wednesday with a theme: “The Body Machine.”
They opened with Dutch composer JacobTV (left), who borrowed a little from minimalist Steve Reich and a lot from maximalist Louis Andriessen for his “The Body of Your Dreams,” a ridiculous and masterful post-postmodern piece that puts snippets of an infomercial for weight-loss equipment on a loop — “all that cellulite and flabbiness,” “three thousand muscle contractions,” “press the button and, wow!” — and, through goal-driven harmonies, takes us on a journey. When a woman moans “Oh, my gosh!” we know we’re hitting a climax, musically speaking. The sweet little coda is also part of JacobTV’s aesthetic — he called them “boombox music” — elevating the trashiest commercial culture into sentimental pop art. It’s clever, but it’s more than just that.
On YouTube, the pianist who performs “The Body of Your Dreams” is dressed like Richard Simmons, bringing the joke to a full and cheesy circle. SG’s Tim Whitehead had more dignity in attire and, with chiseled precision, played the quirky piano lines that track the melodic contours of speech.
“The Garden of Love” is another boombox work by JacobTV (aka Jacob ter Veldhuis), this time based more loftily on a William Blake poem and scored for solo flute (Sherwood) with prerecorded sounds and, commissioned for this concert, a video by Amber Boardman.
A Georgia State grad living in New York, Boardman has a healthy local following. Her video to “The Garden of Love” follows literally or riffs fantastically on the text and the musical undertow. Using video and photographs and computer graphics, her colors are supersaturated, what we might call “nature enhanced.”
Following the poem, her images and the faces (some of them carved from stone) are psychologically astute and pleasingly Gothic. They revel in Blake’s lines:
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
The internal rhythms from the poem and the music — gowns/rounds, briars/desires, etc. — felt quietly echoed within Boardman’s style of fast edits and repeated images. Overall, a terrific melding of words, music and video — surely the collaborative way forward for the arts. Indeed, I’d love to see Sonic Generator commission Boardman and a composer to create a new, mixed-media “opera.”
Among the other highlights of the concert were a video game-musical composition by Jason Rohrer (self-portrait, above) called “Passage,” from 2007. The game can be downloaded here.
At the start, three musicians — flutist Sherwood, bass clarinetist Alcides Rodriguez and percussionist Sherwood — played little repeated cells while violinist Justin Bruns soared with a lyrical line on top, a sort of post-minimalist Glassian style.
On the screen, two little pixilated people, perhaps a married couple (you can see a blonde at left), march around a field of blue and green. They start young and, across five minutes, go grey as they look to score points or perhaps avoid obstacles. One dies. The other dies soon after of a broken heart. The music finally comes to rest with the lonely, tapping drum of a funeral march. I didn’t get much out of the whole thing, but someone seated near me, at the end, spoke a quietly impressed “wow.”
In “The Light Within,” also from 2007, Mississippi-born composer John Luther Adams (above), who now inhabits Alaska, offers what seems like a serene winterscape. You’re enveloped in a thick sonic fog, aware of shadows moving in a distance, barely perceptible. Each of the six musicians plays a drone that shifts shapes and confounds interpretation. A simple walk in the frozen forest? A mind slipping into madness? Inside the womb? When it cuts off clean at the end, your ears don’t quite trust the silence.