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In Search for Electroacoustic Potential. Between the Japanese and Portuguese Cold

On December 4 2010 the Sond’Ar-te Electric Ensemble, the Cascais Municipality resident group, gave a special electroacoustic music concert at the Cascais Cultural Centre. The performance was integrated into two important events – 100th Anniversary of the Portuguese Republic and the 150th Anniversary of the Friendship, Peace and Trade Treaty Conclusion between Japan and Portugal.

The painted devil…

To write a concert review is a task not at all that easy, especially when it concerns...contemporary music. On second thoughts, perhaps the devil is not so black as he is painted. The difficulty and at the same time the advantage of reviewing contemporary music lies in the fact that it is “new” and unexpected, so it requires a certain openness and creativity on the critic’s part. One of my university professors used to say that “in its essence contemporary music is different than all the others”, therefore I decided to take the challenge and here is the result…

The search…

On December 4th 2010 the Sond’Ar-te Electric Ensemble, the Cascais Municipality resident group, gave a special electroacoustic music concert at the Cascais Cultural Centre. The performance was integrated into two important events – 100th Anniversary of the Portuguese Republic and the 150th Anniversary of the Friendship, Peace and Trade Treaty Conclusion between Japan and Portugal.

Before I continue, let me make a short and personal statement about Portuguese weather. Although I am from Poland, where winters can be extreme and tough, I have never experienced such cold inside buildings as in Portugal (what happened to the idea of central heating?). The concert took place at the Cascais Cultural Centre situated at the “Pink House” (“Casa Cor-de-Rosa”), which used to be an ancient convent dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy. Despite its thick walls the ruthless cold entered into the concert hall…

The evening commenced with a short but essential introduction made by Miguel Azguime, the omnipresent co-founder of Miso Music Portugal and the Sond’Ar-te Electric Ensemble. “Portuguese contemporary music has always been underestimated by the governments and the announced cuts in the next year budget are the clearest reflection of this fact”, said the Portuguese artist.

Fortunately this is not a politically oriented text so, for the time being, let me refrain from making any statements on this delicate matter. I shall move directly to the music…

The concert’s first part was marked by 100 years of Portuguese music creation. It began with a Trio for violin, cello and piano by Luís de Freitas Branco, one of Portugal’s considerable composers, musicologists and critics from the first half of the 20th century. The Trio, composed in 1910, is the composer’s juvenile work and consists of one vast movement, a kind of fantasy, which has an intentionally descriptive and programmatic character. Since it originates from the first stage of the composer’s evolution one can distinguish in it three clearly audible inspirations: Claude Debussy’s “Impressionism”, César Franck’s romantic style and traditional music. The Trio, although sometimes stylistically incoherent is “attractive due to the impetuosity of one passages and the involving lyricism of the others.” Nevertheless, in this particular piece, the performing capacities of the Sond’Ar-te Electric Ensemble’s members seemed to have been chilled by the surrounding autumn conditions. It appeared that they could not find a proper balance between the lyric, impetuous and romantic.

The Branco’s Trio was followed by the Portuguese “Cadavre Exquis”, a special project for the Miso Music Portugal 25th Anniversary. Exquisite corpse (also known as exquisite cadaver or rotating corpse) is a surrealistic technique used to collectively tell a story, in which every contributor adds to the story in sequence, building on the last line revealed. According to Nicolas Calas the poetic fragments were supposed to manifest the “unconscious reality in the personality of the group”. The Miso Music “Cadavre Exquis” constitutes an original collection of 100 new miniature works, each one lasting about 1 minute. The miniatures were written by Portuguese and foreign composers of different generations, with whom Miso Music Portugal had the privilege to collaborate during the 25 years of continuous activity. At the concert we could hear 16 of them, chosen and played randomly by the Sond’Ar-te Electric Ensemble conducted by Pedro Neves. The idea itself, although exceptional, in my opinion could have had a more exquisite outcome. Some works, like Paula Azguime’s “Just a Minute” or António Pinho Vargas’ “One Minute to Go” were ironic blinks of eye to the audience, whereas others seemed like unfinished movements, beginnings, introductions or compositional sketches. There is no doubt that the project has a potential of juxtaposing different musical idioms, ideas and stylistic approaches. However wouldn’t it be more thrilling if one could find an invisible thread joining all the works together, like in the original Cadavre Exquis?

The first part finished, my feet warmed up a little bit. It is high time to have a small break, so feel free to have a cup of coffee or tea with milk (due to the cold, of course).

The second, Japanese part of the concert began with a work by Ai Kamachi. In the composer’s biography one can read about her diverse interests embracing electroacoustic music, symphonic works, soundtracks and pop. All these eclectic inspirations can be heard in her work under a curious title, “Fairy Circle”. A fairy ring, also known as fairy circle, elf circle or elf ring is a naturally occurring ring or arc of mushrooms. It is created when mushroom spores are being thrown out, carried by the wind and finally land on the ground. “I wished to realize this process [musically] (…). Andy Goldsworthy’s installations, in which he creates beautiful circles made of natural materials, were a great inspiration to this piece of mine”, says Ai Kamachi. Her work is built of fragile micro-motives, which create a dialogue between the acoustic and electronic parts, based on repetitions and echoes. This continuous process leads to a gradual texture condensation, up to the appearance of Steve Reich-like pulsations. “The circles of sound-spores are variously transformed. Through the electronic device Max / MSP, I tried to create a complex mixture of those sound-spores produced by the live performance and their instant restructuring by real-time sampling. (…) The original circles of sound created by the real musicians change into a variety of imaginary circles (…)”.

The second Japanese piece, “Scape” by Osamu Kadowaki, in contrast to the previous, of nature one, is a subjective reflection on the modern computerized information society. While listening to this work one can also feel that the composer has drawn his inspirations from different sources. The electronic and acoustic parts remain in the “call and response” relationship. According to the composer’s notes the electronic sounds were derived from the acoustic and in effect constitute their disquieting distortion. Occasionally one could hear passages reminding of Louis Andriessen’s repetitive structures. The piece’s central part belongs to a clarinet solo, slightly deformed by the electronics, which was as always brilliantly performed by Nuno Pinto. Nevertheless I keep asking myself about the work’s ideological inclinations mentioned in the composer’s note: does the “distorted”, electronic part represent the modern technology and the acoustic relate to the human element? Are the composer’s intentions that straightforward?

Finally let us move onto the concert’s last piece, “Avant” by José Luís Ferreira, which, due to its title, could have been placed at the programme’s beginning. The piece is the composer’s first version of a specific “work in progress” (avant = ahead, forward or in front) “[The work] functions as a proof of an original concept – there is a possibility of creating live electronics sounds before (avant) the instruments, or at least deriving them from the acoustic sounds, which complete (or complement) the musical figures” explains José Luís Ferreira. In the piece, which reminisces a mathematical riddle, the electronic parts often anticipate the instruments appearing, literally, ahead of them. These two worlds – acoustic and electronic – remain in a close relation, creating an explicit tension of abrupt interruptions, twists and accelerations. Do they aim at controlling each other and do not manage? José Luís Ferreira’s piece reminds me of sur-conventional music by Paweł Szymanski. The Polish composer constantly plays with tradition (Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Bartók) by creating mathematically constructed illusions and allusions to the music of the past – it all seems to be known and in order, but at the same time something appears not to be right, so one could say: “strange I’ve heard that passage before”.

The concert finished, the audience applauded zealously, showing the musicians their satisfaction (by the way, my feet were finally warm, or did I stop feeling them?). Anatole France said: "A good critic is the one who narrates the adventures of his mind among masterpieces", so as for my modest sensations, here comes my subjective sum-up…

I would say that the Saturday concert in Cascais had a potential, which was not fully exploited. On one hand one would desire more coherence on the interpretation level, as in the case of Branco´s Trio, whereas the new works, both by Portuguese and Japanese authors, although executed with great precision, constituted interesting ideas, yet without an accurate development. They lacked a certain dramaturgical nerve, linearity and logic in the succession of compositional ideas. Is it because of the eclecticism in contemporary art that one has lost the capacity of constructing narratives and transmitting ideas? Nevertheless, as I mentioned above, the audience left the “Pink House” with satisfaction, so for the time being I shall leave my doubts without answer and look forward to experiencing the potential’s development during the next Sond’Ar-te Electric Ensemble’s concert.

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