Sonic Generator at MOCA GA

This evening’s Sonic Generator concert at Museum of Contemporary Art GA focused pretty heavily on solo work. Each of the five musicians present performed by themselves — albeit accompanied by recorded soundtracks or, in one case, a computer — and only came together to play as an ensemble in the last piece. Noticeable was the lack of percussion, with Tom Sherwood absent. Even though I have been to contemporary music concerts without it, Sonic Generator and Chamber Cartel have been the two most prolific producers of contemporary and experimental music in town and they have both programmed heavily for percussion, which seems to have caused me to associate the instrument group with the subgenre.

The concert began with “IT” by JacobTV. Scored for flute and soundtrack, the piece makes use of a clip from a documentary interview with Anne Sullivan and her pupil, Helen Keller. In the clip, the incredibly impressive Sullivan explained how she first began teaching Keller to speak. After playing the clip through once, a digitally mixed version, with other instrumentation, accompanied an excellent live performance by Jessica Peak Sherwood on flute. The piece was somewhat dancey and pretty rich, making good use of the vocal track from the interview, with some pretty well scored bits where Sullivan gives instruction and the flutist responds, speaking into the flute.

Two movements from John Harbison’s “Four Songs of Solitude” were next on the program. Performed by Helen Hwaya Kim on violin, this was the first of only two purely acoustic pieces on the program. Being composed in 1985, it was also the only one composed in the 20th century. Somewhat lilting and sonorous, Kim’s performance was clean and clear. She got a good sound out of her violin, avoiding the harsh, over-rosined sound that she sometimes has. The gallery produces some echo and, for this piece, it was very flattering.

This was followed by “Cello Counterpoint” by Steve Reich. Played by Brad Ritchie on cello against a soundtrack of 8 other cellists, the piece had a driving rhythm with an interesting sense of urgency that managed to somehow not be insistent. As is characteristic of a lot of Reich’s works, there was an odd lyricism to it that really drew me in. The gallery’s echo, unfortunately, was not flattering to the sound of the cellos, muddying the sound somewhat.

Next was a work by Sonic Generator’s artistic director, Jason Freeman, called “Shadows”. In four movements, Tim Whitehead played a score for piano on computer that adapted to what he was playing. Freeman described it as being like a choose your own adventure story: the pianist is presented with options about where to go next in the score and the software updates the score in response to the pianists choices. The first movement, ‘Traces’, made me think of a Burroughs-style cut-up of a Morton Feldman piece, only more colorful and not quite that slow tempo. For the next movement, ‘Chorale’, Whitehead seemed to choose chords that were more spread out, creating a much richer sound. ‘Perpetual Quiet’, the third movement, was made up of sweet arpeggios. The final movement was called ‘Perpetual Melody’. It was rhythmically more interesting than the rest and also faster and somewhat more jarring. Overall, the software and the pianist put together a performance that was as engaging as the concept was novel.

The last solo piece of the evening was Nico Muhly’s “It Goes Without Saying” for clarinet and soundtrack. The soundtrack had a couple of recorded clarinets in it and Ted Gurch’s playing blended with the recording much moreso than the other two pieces with recorded accompaniment. The piece left me with the impression of ambling through wilderness that isn’t ‘Wild’ in the common sense but more natural, filled with complex color and beauty and a hint of threats if not careful.

The concert concluded with all five musicians performing Michael Gordon’s “ACDC.” I appreciate Sherwood dressing like Axl Rose,1 but even with that it was the least interesting piece on the program for me. It did have a sort of driving, disorienting grooviness to it that was enjoyable, though, and I might have enjoyed it more if it weren’t the closing piece and the only one played in ensemble.

Overall, it was an excellent program and very worth going back out on a after work on a Monday evening. The sound design was excellent and very well produced on the pieces with electronic accompaniment, though, if I have one regret, it is that there were recordings of acoustic instruments that would have sounded so much better if they were playing live in ensemble. That said, I’m grateful to have an ensemble programming such interesting works and a hearing a few recorded instruments is little enough compared to the pleasure of getting to attend such an excellent concert.

— Footnotes —
1. This is a complete fabrication. It did not happen. However, Ted Gurch, like most clarinetists, probably does get dirty deeds done real cheap.

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