Festival spotlights the beauty of electronic music

Composer Joo Won Park, whose "Snapshots" for bass clarinet and electronics will be performed Monday.
Composer Joo Won Park, whose "Snapshots" for bass clarinet and electronics will be performed Monday.
Posted: April 03, 2013

Dreams of musical utopia have yet to materialize in the electronic-music world, but Network for New Music's Third Space Festival, running from Friday through Monday, is out to show mainstream audiences that the music's ethereal landscapes can be gorgeous.

"It's been wrongly perceived as being ugly or crunchy, when it can be a beautiful extension of acoustic sound, with greater expressivity and emotional range," said Linda Reichert, Network's artistic director. "Some of these pieces are coming out of the world of Debussy - beautiful textures that could only be done electronically. And a lot of this repertoire has never been heard here."

The three-program festival begins as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts with a Friday concert titled "The Arc of Curiosity." It features works by pioneers Paul Lansky and Mario Davidovsky, plus composers from the succeeding generation, among them James Primosch, who directs the University of Pennsylvania's electronic music studio. The Sunday and Monday programs are titled "Projecting Light" and "Beautiful and Strange" - indicating the alternative realms this music inhabits.

Long before electronic music was possible, it was envisioned by musical thinkers such as Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), who conceived of a form of musical expression unfettered by concrete notes and strictures. After World War II, modernist composers were reinventing their creative methodology, and a logical extension of that was to reinvent sound.

But what was considered experimental and out of the mainstream in classical circles became a sensation among pop guitarists, including Jimi Hendrix. Lansky, the 68-year-old Princeton University faculty composer, came to straddle both sides: He worked for decades in relative obscurity developing computerized sounds on which others capitalized, but became a pop-cult figure when Radiohead sampled one of his pieces on its Kid A album, released in 2000.

"It's been a weird journey," he said. "I loved doing computerized music . . . but in the 1970s, it was really hard work. Excruciating. We had to write the software."

Composing was a cumbersome four-step process separating conception of a sound and its final realization. Melding electronic sound and acoustic instruments left live performers hamstrung with regimented, prescribed tempos. Though interactive technology between live and electronic sound was developed in the 1980s, so much hardware was required for a performance that Pierre Boulez's landmark Repons that the piece was sometimes described as "an elephant giving birth to a mouse."

Now, Repons is performed with a fraction of what it once required. Yet Primosch says that composing an electronic piece is more time-consuming than one for acoustic instruments, even using commercial synthesizers.

"I have to create the sound that I want and know how it will work together with other instruments," he says. "There is a pleasure in that. With a synthesizer, you're making up the glockenspiel. You're orchestrating in an elaborate, pointillistic way."

Complete control over the creation of sound can cause a loss of perspective. Primosch knows his students have "studio fatigue" when they keep turning up the volume. Also, the creative control of high technology is meaningless when not operated properly - one reason the composer John Adams, who uses a subtle electronic element with his operas, sends his own technician to performance venues to make sure everything is done right.

"Just a finger slip can do it," Reichert says. "You have to have a sense of humor about it."

The biggest danger, Lansky says, is using technology as a substitute for inspiration: "You can write good music with a rubber band and crummy music with a million dollars of machinery. It's what you do with it that really matters."

Third Space Festival

"The Arc of Curiosity"

8 p.m. Friday at Rose Recital Hall, Fisher-Bennett Hall, 3340 Walnut St.

"Projecting Light"

7:30 p.m. Sunday at Rock Hall, Temple University, Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue

"Beautiful and Strange"

7 p.m. Monday  at Community College of Philadelphia’s Bonnell Hall, 1700 Spring Garden St.

Tickets for each event are $20-$30, $10 for students with valid ID. Information: 215-848-7647 or networkfornewmusic.org

Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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