“What are you going to do with the noise you have left?”

I’d like to preface my post by saying that this is the first Electronic Music recital I’ve attended, and know relatively little about the medium, and in particular, the way in which it is usually presented. My thoughts are based purely on my reaction to the event, and not its validity as a valuable musical avenue.


The audience that shuffled into 101 Becker Communications Building on Sunday night were a mixed bag.  The event was the final opportunity this semester for recital attendance and I’m going to go ahead and guestimate that a good seventy per cent of the audience fell into the category  of undergrads who had spent the last few days trudging from one recital to the next trying to gain a good grade in the class.  The rest of the audience were seemingly students from the composition studio and a small handful of interested parties.  Audience demography interests me since I feel the most important  role of the performer(s) is to communicate, and in my own elements of performance have spent much time thinking about effective methods to achieve this goal.  In the electronic music medium, where no “performer” is visible, there is a sterility that I as an audience member found hard to overcome.

The “stage” was set with four large speakers, and on one side a box of electronic gadgets that intermittently flashed as sound played from the speakers.  For a number of the pieces these small lights were the only visual stimuli.  The first piece on the program was Alali Aria by a student at the ChuGye University for the Arts in Seoul, Korea.  It wasn’t clear to me why works from outside the University of Iowa were being presented, or how any of the works programmed were selected.  This work featured a recorded song that was occasionally doubled and moved within the stereo field, apparently invoking thoughts of reincarnation.  It ended extremely abruptly, with the audience unsure whether there was a malfunction in the recording, or that was truly the end.

By contrast, the third piece began so quietly that the audience did not realize it had begun.  Yunsoo Kim’s Making Show Pictures II originated from the artistic methods of the painter Kandinsky, I’m just not sure how.  The work was in an arch form, building from small clicks reminiscent to Cage’s amplified cactus to a cacophony comparable to a loud rainstick, and back down again.  Pitch was gradually introduced into the work in the form of recorded/manipulated piano and strings.

secondOrderConstellation and either/or, by Benjamin O’Brien and Jason Palamara respectively, both made use of the large video screen on the stage.  O’Brien’s written description of his work, peppered with technical terminology, did little to aid my understanding of what I was hearing or watching, other than deducing that it was amplitude that was being represented in the visualization.

either/or – jason palamara from Lexi Bass on Vimeo.

Palamara’s work took the opportunity to engage the audience to an entirely new level.  (This was my second chance to experience either/or as it was also programmed last weekend at the Composers Workshop recital).  Billed as a “laptop/live electronics and audience participation” work Palamara writes various musings into three text boxes on the screen, upon which the audience is directed to think or actively participate (e.g. clap, whisper, sing).  The sounds which the audience generate are then manipulated by Palamara and mixed into the continuing audio.  A couple of thought-provoking questions are put to the audience, “What are you going to do with the time you have left? You have less of it that you think.” and, the one that resonated much further with me, “What are you going to do with the noise you have left?”  Assuming that my ability to hear would soon be curtailed, how would I chose to spend my final listening moments?  Would it be with a favorite classical composer or musical genre, birdsong through an open window, or perhaps a conversation with a loved one? What is my favorite type of noise?

Overall, this recital showed me about a lot of noise I don’t want to spend much more time listening to.  Maybe if I understood more about the medium I would feel differently – if I could learn about the compositional processes and technological accomplishments, the “why” and “how” decisions made by the composers.  But without this I felt like an audience member who had missed the point.  Presentation by sound system alone left me struggling to find the very element that draws me to music in the first place, human communication by creative expression.


1 Comment

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One response to ““What are you going to do with the noise you have left?”

  1. Lexi Bass

    But what about the end to Either/Or? Where everyone in the audience has sung together and then the piece ends in a translation of that choral tradition into the lower register, creeping into an abyss? This piece is funny, and sad and epic all at once. It leaves the audience with a sense that they’ve participated in the entire world spectrum of events.

    If you saw in a review you don’t want to spend any more time with modern music, and refer to a favorite classical composer, or favorite genre, you might not understand music or human beings so much as what you like. If you can’t see the classical tradition in this piece your ears are like a child’s tongue when he refuses to eat peas and carrots. You’re only as open minded as you decide to be, so if you want to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches far into adulthood, you will.

    I fully understand your concern that the performers should communicate to the audience and I totally agree. But its important to remember communication is built with a transmitter and a receiver. All the music you have ever heard is being translated in your mind. Jason Palamara’s Either/Or does engage the audience and to a much more personal degree than Bach or Beethoven ever thought of. When you’re ready, open up your palette. The world is full of things we never knew we would one day understand.

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