Sonic Generator, the new-music ensemble-in-residence at Georgia Tech, will present a free concert tonight, Monday, April 16, in Rich Auditorium at the Woodruff Arts Center. Titled “Hi Tech, Lo Fi,” it will feature new music that makes innovative uses of technologies, old and new, to create a deliberately “low fidelity” sound.
“It’s a particular kind of low fidelity that they’re after,” explains Jason Freeman, executive director of Sonic Generator and a composer himself. He notes that “lo-fi” character can come from a device that imposes compositional limitations or from the particular sounds that are enabled by the technology.
For example, Michel van der Aa’s “Memo” is for violin and portable cassette recorder. That posed at least one initial technical problem for Sonic Generator. “We were having trouble digging up an old cassette recorder that still worked,” Freeman says. “It turns out you can buy them from Staples. So we have a brand-new ancient RCA cassette recorder, plastic blister pack and everything. It gives us exactly the horrible sound we were looking for.”
In “Memo,” the violin records on the cassette deck and plays along during playback, which includes the static and hiss you would expect. “What you also get is something much more structurally important to the piece. It doesn’t play back at exactly the same speed that it records,” says Freeman, which creates small pitch variations in performance. Although current technology could fabricate those qualities, they are inherent in the cassette recorder and emerge naturally from it,
Audiences may not pine longingly for the cassette deck, but there is a strong element of nostalgia in Ronan Shai’s “Concerto for Piccolo and Gameboy.” Shai created all the electronics for the piece on the Gameboy, Nintendo’s classic hand-held gaming device, using a hacked game cartridge. But he was interested in the sound world and the associations of the old video games, not just the Gameboy’s timbral limitations. Shai’s thematic angles are reminiscent of specific sounds many of us heard a quarter-century ago.
Tristan Perich, on the other hand, has a very different reason for using low-fidelity technology in his music. His interest is in working with the limitations and fundamentals of digital sound at its most elemental level.
Two of Perich’s works will be performed tonight. “Momentary Expanse” is among the “one-bit” electronic pieces for which he is best known, using his own custom-built circuitry to accompany the vibraphone. By contrast, his “Woven” is for five musicians and “gated” electronics. Likewise, it involves a circuit he built and programmed himself. The live musicians, who are instructed to play as softly as possible, are amplified and the sounds processed by Perich’s device. The device simply decides when to turn on or off each player’s amplification, letting the sound pass through or suppressing it at rapid rates. The resulting rhythms become core musical material of the piece.
“It makes the amplification sound incredibly electronic, but keeps all the rich timbres of the acoustic sounds, superimposing this rhythmic structure on top,” Freeman says. “You really tend to focus on the aural image made where instruments are amplified.”
“Table Music,” by Thierry de Mey, is just that: tables with piezoelectric contact microphones attached. A rich vocabulary of sonic gestures are made possible from details too small to be heard without amplification.
Daniel Whol’s “Pixelated,” for piano, toy piano, percussion and electronics, takes its inspiration from low-resolution digital images and the composer’s interest in sounds that he calls “happy accidents: pedal hits on a piano, clicks from mallets, flaws in recordings.”
While audiophiles may get their breeches in a bunch over it, a “lo-fi aesthetic” should not be dismissed as the domain of cloistered cubicle geeks. In popular music, low-fidelity elements have been used in songs such as the Beatles’ “Honey Pie.” Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones recorded the acoustic guitar that starts “Street Fighting Man” on a portable cassette machine. Many rock bands today consider the rawness of “lo fi” a desirable visceral and emotional quality. The high-fidelity pursuit of faithful audio reproduction is hardly going away, but the possibilities of “lo fi” open additional, exciting creative doors, especially for artists who lack the means to obtain higher-end technology.