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 Saariaho, Parra, Rivas: London Sinfonietta, Sound Intermedia, Kings Place, London, 2.10.2009 (GDn)

Kaija Saariaho
: NoaNoa
Hector Parra: I have come like a butterfly into the hall of human life (world premiere)
Roque Rivas: Conical Intersect (UK premiere)

Pushing boundaries has never been the job of institutions: IRCAM, however, was founded to do just that. Its status as the crucible of electronic and electro-acoustic musical innovation was unquestioned throughout its early years in the 1970s and 80s. Boulez had been enticed back to his homeland from the States with the promise of lavish government funding for the gadgetry required, and the early musical results - works by Boulez, Berio, the entire spectralist school and our own Jonathan Harvey – more than justified the expenditure. But what of its recent activities? Arty electronica (i.e. computer music you can’t dance to) has become an increasingly arcane pursuit, even within contemporary classical circles, and the idea of an all-embracing municipal facility for its development and promotion seems increasingly irrelevant.

This evening’s concert of recent works developed at IRCAM was, no doubt, intended to dispel these concerns, and to a certain extent it succeeded. IRCAM has grown and diversified as fast as the musical art forms it supports, and of the three works presented, two demonstrated genuinely new and meaningful directions. The other demonstrated a consequence of institutional support: working to the high but rigid expectations of comparison with the venerated repertoire created by the pioneers of the medium.

It is probably no coincidence that this work, I have come like a butterfly into the hall of human life by Hector Parra, was the only purely electronic piece on the programme. Problems of canon and historical accretion are intrinsic to an art form that is based solely in recorded sound. And Parra’s piece came across as music that was conceived in the long shadows of the pioneering works of Stockhausen, Boulez and even Ligeti. All these composers realised early on that for audiences to connect, tape music required a vocabulary of associative sounds. Parra too uses clear, if electronically generated, references to speech, footsteps, wind etc. as the basis for his electronic language. He constellates them in elegant ways, and it is perhaps unfair to expect the aesthetics of electronic music to move in pace with its technology. The fact that the work was created digitally was apparent from the new extremes that are available, with both ends of the dynamic and pitch spectra exploited in ways that could never have happened in the days of magnetic tape. This performance was a world premiere, and it sadly demonstrated one important aspect of the IRCAM project: the canonization of electronic music’s founding fathers and the oedipal pressures it exerts on its newest recruits.

Thankfully, the two electro –acoustic works in the programme demonstrated better use of French tax payer’s money. NoaNoa, written (developed?) by Kaija Saariaho at IRCAM in the 1990s, is a work for flute with live electronic sound manipulation. Saariaho has a rare ability amongst electro-acoustic composers to bring the acoustic (i.e. the flautist and the flute) in close alignment with the electro, and vice versa. Harmonics and vocal effects were the flautist’s appeasement of the computer, while the emphasis on even harmonics and a propensity for lower partials was the peace offering that the electronics brought to the live environment. The resulting soundscape stretches from the live, through the electronically manipulated and into the pre-recorded with a masterful continuity. Whatever the technological background to this work, it is music that stands on its own artistic merits, experimentation that does not exclude consummation.

Conical Intersect
by Roque Rivas in another such piece. The techniques pioneered by Saariaho are clearly evident here, although new technology has played a part too, especially in the pre-recorded part. But this piece, which is also new (the performance was a UK premiere) inhabits an utterly distinctive soundworld. The solo instrument is the bassoon, an unusual choice for electro-acoustic music. Rivas’ tells us the music was inspired by the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, whose work of the same name of 1975 involved cutting a conical hole in the side of a 17th century house that was to be demolished to make way for the Centre Pompidou and IRCAM. The bassoon has a conical bore and so the connection is made. In fact, the timbre of the bassoon is justification enough for the instrument’s use in this context, and the electronic manipulation makes full use of its distinctive reedy tone and range of percussive attacks. And what a distinctive tone it is! Even when filtered, stretched or subjected to whatever other electronic modifications, the aural result is always only a few steps away from the reedy, ponderous sound of the live instrument. It is a virtuoso solo part, as is the flute part in the Saariaho, and full credit to Michael Cox and John Orford for not being upstaged by their electronic alter-egos.

The sounds of Conical Intersect offered something genuinely new. IRCAM’s basement location makes it easy to suspect a cloistered mentality, suspicious of musical developments above ground. Those involved do everything in their power to dispel that impression, including the series of concerts at Kings Place of which this was a part. Rivas puts this into action with his acceptance of timbres and formants from electronic dance music. No beats (that would be going too far) but a range of electronic sounds that are familiar through other electronic sound environments. Of the three works on the programme, it was the most compelling evidence that the IRCAM project is still on track, and that those involved do occasionally take an interest in what is happening at pavement level.

Gavin Dixon

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