Plymouth’s Contemporary Music Festival Focuses on Biomusic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Kirke, Baltas, Casanova, Miranda: Ten Tors Orchestra / Simon Ible (conductor), Theatre 1, Roland Levinsky Building, Plymouth University, Plymouth. 28.2.2015 (PRB)

Ten Tors Orchestra -photo  credit Philip R Buttall
Ten Tors Orchestra -photo credit Philip R Buttall


Alexis Kirke: Orchestra Processing Unit, Movement 1 and 2
Linas Baltas: DNA
Anandi Sala Casanova: The Hidden Sea
Eduardo Reck Miranda: Corpus Callosum


Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival is now an annual event promoted in partnership with Plymouth University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Research (ICCMR), and is firmly establishing itself as an important platform in the UK for new music exploring ideas emerging from leading-edge research that is helping to pave the way for the music of the future.

This year’s festival theme is Biomusic, which, according to the comprehensive brochure, encompasses ‘a musical ecosystem based on data from the UK’s forested landscapes, a biocomputer that can play the piano, an audio-visual representation of motor neurone disease and a composition for saxophone and electronics charting the evolution of humpback whale song! Composers and artists will explore new sounds, ideas, instruments and musical structured, and even created, by biological processes at this year’s Contemporary Music Festival. As the musicians venture into the unknown, audiences are encouraged to actively listen and engage in debate about what they hear, see and feel’.

The whole programme, of course, is spread across the weekend, but as ever the Gala Concert which features Ten Tors Orchestra – resident professional ensemble of Peninsula Arts, Plymouth University – is the festival’s main musical focus.

Introducing the evening, Simon Ible, Director of Music at Peninsula Arts – the public arts and cultural organisation of Plymouth University – made a valid point at the outset. Each of the four works to be heard was purely for the various groups of orchestral instruments on stage. While some of the composing processes indeed made use of computer-generated algorithms and various mathematical calculations, there wasn’t a prepared-piano, synthesiser, or indeed any other form of electronic instrument in sight. This hasn’t always been the case in the past but represents, I suggest, a welcome central shift from the ‘sound’ to the ‘process’. Indeed each composition could stand equally well on its own, alongside any other piece of orchestral or string music, and where the myriad of still-varied timbres was here achieved using conventional instruments, and not-overly-exotic playing instructions to boot.

However, this does raise an important issue when performing contemporary music in concert, and one which has yet to be fully resolved for the benefit of the audience, particularly where computers or other numerical calculations have been used to produce some of the resulting melodic and rhythmic features.

Conventional concerts usually have printed programmes available, where programme-notes for each piece are to be found, detailing design, historical information, and often a blow-by-blow account of who plays what theme where, as the score unfolds. Most audiences glance at this beforehand, perhaps even during the performance, but largely the music itself is sufficient, in terms of making its construction and any descriptive relevance clear to the listener.

But, if there are comprehensive programme-notes, should the conductor still preface the performance of each work with a brief outline? Normally this would not be the case, of course, but in a concert of contemporary music, the composers may well be present, so should they give a brief explanation of their intentions, to augment and aid the ensuing listening experience? True as with the present programme, each composer has written extensively and academically about their respective composition, but it’s always hard to read this during the performance, when lighting is often dimmed, and from the social standpoint it’s equally challenging to read each note beforehand, when inevitably someone is trying to engage you in friendly banter, or the interval drink beckons.

Alexis Kirke briefly introduced the opening piece – his two-movement Orchestra Processing Unit – which sought to combine aleatoric principles (the conductor is given two numbers 24 hours before the performance which the performers then manipulate in the second movement on the night) with pre-defined melodic fragments interwoven and ‘processed’ in the first. To the listener, this seemed to produce a varied texture of melodically-played thirds in almost minimalist fashion in the opening, while something approaching a fugal texture in the second, and where the piano was left to give the closing apotheosis.

The following work, DNA, by Lithuanian contemporary classical composer Linas Baltas, was given without any formal spoken introduction, except that Ible did refer to the explanatory notes in the brochure. According to these, Dutch composer Louis Andriessen has described Baltas as follows: ‘His works can be distinguished with intellectual aspect, as the composer gives a lot of attention to structural manipulations of materials…’ This is no doubt absolutely true, but could just as easily be assigned to virtually any composer – living or dead – whose writing is anything more than essentially monadic.

In writing about DNA, Baltas goes on to explain: ‘The conception of “DNA” is based on the transitions of fundamental tones from one field of attraction to another. Consecutive transition in this case is the step of fifth [sic] from the first fundamental tone (C in this case) to the following tones…DNA is created on the basis of a geometric progression’.

To the average listener not acquainted with Infinity-Row Technique or Fractals, this doesn’t really prepare them for what they are actually going to ‘hear’, even though Baltas does refer to the work’s over-arching construction: Introduction-Exposition-Exposition II-Episode (Part I), Scherzo (Part II), and Adagio-Coda (Part III) – that is, casting a nod in the direction of a more conventional three or four movement symphonic construction. Be that as it may, Baltas manipulates his ideas, textures and effects successfully, in a whole that does hang together with organic unity, and, while the required use of the violin bow, on a couple of occasions, to mimic the swish of a whip – despite the significant potential of doing some real damage to it – it was a novel to watch, even if not seemingly absolutely germane to the proceedings.

There was, however, little surprise that the evening’s most appealing piece should be The Hidden Sea by young Catalan composer, Anandi Sala Casanova – and all the more gratifying to report, given that she had only recently graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Music from Plymouth University, unlike her more eminent and well-established co-composers. The work is written for string ensemble, by way of an exploration of Organic Minimalism. Not only is its appeal immediate, but her programme-notes combine elements of the structural processes involved, but, and more importantly in the concept of a traditional concert, also a purely descriptive paragraph of what the audience can expect to hear, and any non-musical external imagery to be aware of, for extra appreciation. In fact, the work could so easily co-exist on two levels – as an intellectual exercise, but equally as a piece of attractive programme-music, well written for the resources, and something that could easily grace any conventional musical programme. Given that Barber’s somewhat shorter ‘Adagio’ was not written originally as a stand-alone piece, The Hidden Sea could benefit from a little judicious pruning, if it were to compete on equal terms, but it presents nonetheless attractive, sincere and engaging writing.

The closing work was Corpus Callosum by Eduardo Reck Miranda, Professor in Computer Music at Plymouth University, and co-director, with Ible, of the Festival itself. Depending on the extent of your anatomical knowledge, the Corpus Callosum is the part of the brain that connects the left and right hemispheres and facilitates communication between them. Simply-put, the left hemisphere is largely engaged in processing the details of things, while the right is more concerned in taking a more holistic view of things, and is often more associated with a more subjective, or poetic interpretation of the world. As Ible pointed out, as the stage was being reset for the performance, the instruments on the right hand side play segments that were composed emphasizing orchestration, but where the passages don’t have rhythm or melody, focussing more on timbre and clusters of sustained notes. Those on the left play modifications of passages ‘pinched’ from Beethoven’s score of the slow movement from his Symphony No 7, which is the source piece used by Miranda in extrapolating brain scans from different subjects, while they were listening to it. Technically, as Miranda goes on to say, ‘The passages for the right hand side were composed with an adaptation of a piece of software developed at IRCAM (Institute for Research in Acoustics and Music) in Paris…As for the instruments on the left side, they play transformations of Beethoven’s music, which were developed in conjunction with ICCMR in Plymouth, and NOTAM (Norwegian Centre for Technology) in Oslo.

Opening with Beethoven’s original wind chord, the piece represents an intriguing amalgam of textures, rhythms, and not without the occasional recognizable Miranda fingerprint hinting at his South American origins, and is not overly long, either The only reservation is that, as happened previously in 2013 with Miranda’s ‘Symphony of Minds Listening’, while a video was projected behind the players as the music was being performed, on this occasion the film, by Norwegian video-artist Ellen Røed, rather than ‘showing an animated rendering of the brain scans, this time aimed to depict a far more subjective interpretation of the data’. The resulting visual hotchpotch, including anatomical diagrams, scenes in a laboratory, and countryside shots with a match-like figure dancing around the screen, didn’t really seem significantly to complement, enhance or elucidate what was being heard – although perhaps I was watching it with the wrong side of the brain dominant.

A special word does, however, need to be said in praise of Ible’s real ability to communicate the intentions of each composer’s score unfailingly to his well-drilled orchestra with such assurance, empathy and most importantly, enthusiasm, given that this is a long way from their bread-and butter musical experience on other days. To this end, newly-appointed leader, Mary Eade, stood up to the mark with equal poise and direction, and percussionist Andy Smith-Turner’s contribution, particularly on marimba in Corpus Callosum deserves to be specially commended.

Philip R Buttall



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