Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

Sounds complicated: This year’s soundON Festival will challenge musicians and listeners alike

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Sounds complicated

The NOISE ensemble performing in 2009. Photo by Supeena Insee Adler.

Christopher Adler, a music professor at the University of San Diego who organizes the annual soundON Festival of Modern Music, likes to be challenged.

He’s mastered the khaen, a bamboo mouth organ used in the traditional music of Laos and Northeast Thailand. His newest composition, a piece for a drum set without cymbals, seeks to capture the polyrhythmic improvisation of free-jazz drumming. At the first soundON Festival four years ago, he performed “The Chord Catalog,” a mathematical marathon by the Paris-based minimalist composer Tom Johnson. On piano, Adler studiously played all 8,178 possible chords contained in a single octave.

“It was akin to a form of meditation, almost like a kind of Buddhist meditation—an hour of absolutely focused concentration,” he says. “Not so much a musical experience in any traditional sense.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the soundON Festival is tricky for musicians and listeners alike. This year’s program includes highly conceptual and dazzlingly complex pieces by composers from around the world. Two U.S. premieres look especially brutal: Johnson’s “844 Chords,” which follows a complex mathematical algorithm that makes Terry Riley’s “In C” sound like “Old McDonald”; and Greek composer Nicolas Tzortzis’ “Mnésique,” a seven-minute exploration of memory that Adler likens to seeing your life flash before your eyes during a car crash.

Complicating matters is the fact that members of NOISE, the ensemble performing most of the pieces, live in different parts of the country—in addition to Adler and guitarist / composer Colin McAllister in San Diego, there’s a violinist in L.A., a cellist in Ohio, a flautist in Baltimore and a percussionist in Alaska (who’s sitting out this year)—and they won’t actually sit down to rehearse the pieces until a week before the festival. But Adler, NOISE’s pianist and composer in residence, doesn’t seem worried.

“That kind of music is inherently risky,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how much rehearsal time you have. There’s always this element of danger in it, and that’s part of what we like about it.”

In spite of all these challenges, the festival is designed to make uncompromising music more approachable. Concerts will be held in La Jolla’s Athenaeum Music & Arts Library—with no stage, curtain or backstage, it offers a more relaxed vibe than a concert hall. Rehearsals on the day of performances will be open to the public. Visiting composers will hold pre-concert talks. And at a late-night “Chill-out Concert” featuring the Formalist Quartet, a California string ensemble, audience members are free to come and go as they ponder pieces like Andrew Nathaniel McIntosh’s sublime “Voice and Echo I.”

To hardcore avant-garde listeners, the most surprising aspect of the festival might be that the program mostly consists of traditional notation and arrangements. Back in the ’60s, the late American composer Harry Partch taught SDSU students how to play fanciful homemade instruments with unique tuning systems, and these days, UCSD’s famed Music Department has supported groups like the Bitwise Operators, a self-described “laptop ensemble”—so, in a city with a rich experimental history, aren’t violins and treble clefs old-hat?

Adler doesn’t think so. “It’s almost like the language I grew up speaking, so it’s hard, in a way, not to love it,” he says. “I don’t feel like it’s all used up. People can still write a good novel in English; there’s still good music you can write with good old notes on paper.”

Appropriately, NOISE’s name brings to mind the prescient 1985 study Noise: The Political Economy of Music, in which French scholar Jacques Attali argues that music will eventually no longer be a social tool but, rather, a boundless medium for experimentation. Nobody can deny that today’s musicians enjoy immense freedoms. They can borrow ideas from groundbreaking composers like John Cage or Steve Reich—or they can create their own musical systems. And if they can’t play instruments, they can use computer programs like Max/MSP to create their own sounds. But they still face the challenge of making music that’s intellectually and aesthetically satisfying.

Sound and concept dovetail beautifully in “Shades of Raindrops” by Korean composer Sungji Hong, one piece on the program. In a recording Hong sent via e-mail, Korea’s Ensemble TIMF explore various timbres in E-flat—long-drawn strings, fluttering flute, slamming piano, even some random snapping. The impressionist changes, she explains, evoke the different colors and patterns of raindrops, from light drizzle to heavy torrents.

NOISE assembled the program two years ago, after an international call for scores yielded enough interesting pieces to fill two years’ worth of festivals. Unfortunately for curious concert-goers, though, none of the Europe-based composers whose pieces will be performed this year will be able to attend the festival because of the economic downturn.

Adler is characteristically undaunted.

“In a way, if that’s the worst side-effect of the economy, we’re doing OK,” he says. “We’re still doing the festival. We’re still doing the music we want to do.”

The soundON Festival of Modern Music will be held at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla Thursday June 17, through Saturday, June 19.

This article ran in last week’s issue of CityBeat.


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