Music by New York composer Nathan Davis was the centerpiece of Atlanta’s contemporary scene over the weekend — as a headliner at Sonic Generator’s season-opening concert Friday on the Georgia Tech campus, and in a (semi-) solo show Saturday at Eyedrum.
Davis was educated at Rice and Yale universities but raised in Alabama — his father taught architecture at Auburn University — and for his Eyedrum show, at least four family members were in the audience. (Davis shared the bill with Atlanta percussionist Klimchak, whose set I had to miss.)
“A concert of percussion and other small objects,” Davis called it. In the first work, “Diving Bell,” he struck triangles and held a microphone up to the vibrating metal, capturing almost inaudible overtones that were fed through live computer electronics to create eerie, piercing effects — now liquid and ghostly like an underwater scream in a sci-fi horror movie, now chirping and syntho-pastoral.
Much of Davis’ music puts noise at the center, discarding the old fundamentals of harmony, melody and rhythm. Noise is the ultimate abstract art, as capable as traditional harmony of stirring the emotions. But as an invented language with no rules (and often improvised), pure noise is trickier to manipulate into a coherent, or meaningful, statement. (In the venerable sonata-allegro form, the stuff of Mozart and Brahms, coherence was built into the design.)
Davis plays it shrewdly. In “Like Sweet Bells Jangled,” drawn from a line of Ophelia’s in “Hamlet” — “Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh” — the composer was joined by his wife, violinist Sylvia Davis, and a computer program using what’s called ring modulation, which takes the violin and percussion notes and adds notes above and below, creating rich chords. It built to a clangorous and uncomfortably noisy climax. But then something remarkable: the violin emerged from the post-apocalyptic haze with a plaintive line, simple and confessional, and suddenly what had come before sounded like ritual, as if it were tapping some ancient spirituality — an emotional little finale. For moments like these, Davis’ music is being performed all over, from the Ojai Festival in California to New York’s Le Poisson Rouge.
Another intriguing work was “Talking to Vasudeva,” an improvised piece scored for long flat stones plucked from a river in Vermont and backed by field recordings Davis made on his walks to the river, through rustling autumn leaves and crunchy winter snow. In performance, the hollow-sounding, musically distinctive stones sat on a microphoned tabletop. Davis struck them with mallets like a xylophone or tapped them against each other — with wind and heavy footfalls as accompaniment.
Many composers in the avant-garde take a Japanese or other Asian aesthetic as the basis for their art. Several of Davis’ works put in mind a more African sensibility, of ritual and heavy drumming, of tapping stones and thumb pianos, all baked in an open, arid landscape. Or maybe that’s what his neighborhood in New York sounds like; it’s hard to tell. Still, he’s a substantive composer, a name to remember.
Davis’ music was the anchor for the Sonic Generator concert the evening before, Friday at Georgia Tech. It was homecoming weekend for Tech football, so the school routed the concert to the newly refurbished Reinsch-Pierce Auditorium (photo above, from 1953), a handsome lecture hall with a sleek Art Deco entryway, a pale wood interior and acoustics that are bright and lively.
Davis’ “The Bright and Hollow Sky,” composed in 2008 for five musicians (flute, clarinet, trumpet, percussion and guitar) and live electronics, closed the evening. From the stage, the composer explained how the music is microtonal and moves in cycles punctuated by a gong-like twang from the guitar. A computer interacts with what the musicians play, adding new sounds. For the listener, the music started as if in an arid landscape, with haunted, far-away images from the various instruments, pushed along by a nifty bongo rhythm that was going nowhere fast, a sort of beatnik hootenanny in the desert.
The imagery changed, but not the mood, and a gentle wash of electronics added its own emotional energy as the work transformed into a sort of blurry, three-dimensional sound sculpture. Curious. Compelling.
But the hit of the evening came with “Sorrow, Like Pleasure, Creates Its Own Atmosphere,” with music from 2003 by Gene Pritsker, played by flutist Jessica Peek Sherwood, and a video by New York artist Amber Boardman, a former Atlantan.
“Sorrow” was played recently at FLUX 2010 and deserves a much wider audience. Boardman’s video is highly inventive, a mix of animation, photographs and stop-action computer graphics, and she takes us on a journey without telling a linear story. As Sherwood, dressed in black, blows across her real flute, her doppelgänger appears on screen, a wild apparition. She’s in a red leather dress and heels. She sports Beowulf-style chain mail over her head and shoulders. Her flute is a brass drainpipe, and the music drips out of it like black sludge. The sludge has its own face and personality, howling at our inhumanity. Soon, disembodied sneakers, drumsticks and overturned plastic buckets — the basic gear of street musicians — appear and do their thing. The flutist hops along the buckets.
Loaded with visual puns and unexpected images, there’s a lot to watch. Yet Boardman’s style is endearing, poetic and controlled, never chaotic, and it can be absorbed on first viewing. She’s alert to Pritsker’s music, too, tracking his moods of funky, beat-heavy, jazzy and freeform. (The program note describes the pre-recorded sounds coming from Indian voice, flute and drums.) This is Sherwood and Boardman’s second collaboration, after “The Garden of Love” last April. I hope to see another, and soon.
The other works in the concert couldn’t hope to capture our attention in the same way, although some were excellent pieces of music. Nothing much happens in Randall Woolf’s “Alternative Music,” from 1995, where a syntho track spells out a gentle, descending three-note pattern, slow and dreamy, and a quartet of live musicians (flute, clarinet, violin, cello) add shimmer. It’s remote, sometimes lovely.
Jonathan Kramer’s “Renascence,” from 1974, is a classic of the electronic music genre, where a live clarinetist plays and reel-to-reel tape machines echo back the sound, all over a low drone. Now done digitally, it was performed at Sonic Generator’s inaugural concert in 2006. On Saturday, Ted Gurch played some jazzy licks, then played counterpoint with what he’d played a few seconds earlier. Pips and squeaks and birdie chirps — all whimsical and gentle — multiply like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s brooms, unstoppably, until the sonic layers became the harmony. “Renascence” is a gorgeous thing, clouds of luminous sound.
Before launching into the six-minute “Kalimba,” by Karlheinz Essl (at left), pianist Tim Whitehead felt the need to tell us he’s six feet two, a full-grown man. Then he sat cross-legged on the floor in front of a toy piano, an image like Snoopy’s pal Schroeder at the baby grand. The toy piano’s unmistakable timbre, with electronic enhancements from small speakers within the instrument, make a happy sound. Perhaps that was enough.
Jesper Nordin’s provocatively titled and emotionally nerve-wracking “Calm Like a Bomb,” from 2000, aims to push our buttons. It succeeds. Helen Hwaya Kim, on an overamplified violin, plays glissandos up the length of the fingerboard as a wash of grim sound envelops us, building to a moment of aggressive terror then evaporating to nothingness. If not for the title and program notes, how would we hear this piece?
Sonic Generator’s next concert, titled “Music of IRCAM” and devoted to works from Paris’ avant-garde laboratory, is scheduled for November 30 in the Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Auditorium.