Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Plug 2010 02

This year's electroacoustic concert was a game of two halves. In the first half we got, er a game, a game of Chess, in fact, as the piece by Joshua Payne and Alexander Horowitz was entitled. The idea was good. Downstage, we had a chessboard and two chairs, illuminated by a table lamp, with a CCTV  camera looking down on the board and projected above the stage. Behind them was a performer, Richard Greer, who's job seemed to be to enter the moves into a laptop; upstage from that was percussionist Glynn Forrest with an amplifed set up of untuned instruments.

There was no explanation of the piece in the programme note, but what seemed to be happening - well, what I kind of know was happening, as I was party to some of the very early discussions of the piece - was that Josh and Alex were playing a game of chess and that the moves, interpreted in some way by Richard and Glynn, would form a musical background the evolution of which would be directed in some way by the course of the game.

The sound world produced was quite attractive; there seemed to be some self-effacing tuned sounds coming from the laptop, whilst in the foreground were some very attractive amplified percussion sounds, I think resampled and replayed by the computer. The piece also looked quite good, with the two protagonists coming on in appropriately black and white costume, Richard dressed as a - king? - and some appropriate lighting.

How one would appreciate this piece probably depends on whether or not you can play chess; I can, a bit, and this was a lousy game of chess, very frustrating towards the end with both players missing blindingly obvious mates. Or, probably; the other frustrating aspect of the piece was that the pieces were only distinguishable with difficulty on the screen. And the board was sideways on, reversed left and right.

This sounds petty, but the fact is that for me the drama of the piece was bound up in the game, rather than the music. The relationship between the game play and the music was very unclear; about the only thing one could detect was that the bass drum played loudly when the queen made a move. The image on the screen dominated the piece to the extent that I thought it would have been stronger had the players not been dressed up; one had no inclination to look at them in person.

Overall, though, all power to Josh and Alex for trying something a bit different. By contrast, I have to say, the second half of the concert, which featured purely loudspeaker/diffusion pieces, was rather grey and samey. Really, very samey; the first three pieces in the concert felt like the same piece three times, the same kind of source sounds, the same treatments, the same favouring of high-pitched noise-like sounds, the same avoidance of pitched sounds, the same kind of gestures in time. The fourth piece started from a different sonic premiss, using sung sounds, but again seemed to get stuck in a bit of a granular-delay-ish-plugin rut; the last couple of pieces were kind of back where we started.

I'm not sure whether it is fairer to name the composers and the pieces or not; at any rate, I've decided not too. And, I may not be being fair at all; people that sneer at electroacoustic music should probably be made to try to do it themselves; I readily admit it ain't that easy to make satisfying music out of nothing more than sound, and all power to these students for trying.