Last Thursday’s Indeterminacies concert at Zeitgeist Gallery featured the work of composer Stanley Link, with composer Mark Volker moderating. The evening opened with a brief fixed media piece – what composers used to call tape – titled “Endless Song.” This 50-second divertimento opened with a synthesizer sound and featured the vocalizations of mother and infant, who, it turned out, were Link’s wife Melanie and daughter Wednesday.
Electroacoustics with the voices of innocents can turn a bit ominous – we’ve all seen too many TV movies where a woman walks down a dark alley while a synthesizer drones on. Link managed to sidestep this association with a brief, charming and evocative piece that made use of his daughter’s adorable crib-speech.
In discussing his process for working with live audio samples, Link landed on this gem: “Sound is like ….trying to get a cat into a cat carrier. You have a plan – this and then this – and the sound just won’t let that happen.”
Indeed, like Link’s cat, sound often seems to have its own agenda. During last Thursday’s Indeterminacies concert, the audience could hear cars and trains outside the gallery and fireworks from the Titans game at LP Field. Maybe those sonic intrusions were just part of the indeterminate nature of the event. Cage would have loved it.
The second work on the program was a deconstruction of the penultimate bagatelle from Beethoven’s Op. 126. Link used a remarkable system of notation – a tablature for piano that gave the performer the hand position (which fingers to use on each hand), but nothing more. There was no guidance about pitch or rhythm.
The bagatelle, however, did give Link raw material. He derived the hand positions directly from the bagatelle. The performer decided the rest. Pianist Rodger Coleman handled this adventurous, semi-improvised work with grace and class. Link accompanied him using live-processing software. These two men approached their work with such sweetness. They are clearly fond of one another; I know they have worked together for years.
The performance really took off when Coleman started responding to Link’s soundscape. As wild and abstract as the musical language was, from that point on, the work took a shape resembling a conversation.
Coleman’s performance reminded me of James Turrell’s art. When listening to indeterminate music like this, your brain is hyperactively attempting to analyze the music and infer meaning. The result is a state of delirious hyper-attention.
After a break for audience discussion – thoughtfully led by Volker – Link and Coleman played the piece again. Indeterminacies gets high marks in my book for playing things twice. During the discussion, Link offered an additional observational gem: Playing a written-out score is like “voluntary possession from a 200-year-old set of instructions.” We become Beethoven zombies.
This was a remarkable insight, and it brought a seemingly surreal undercurrent to the fore. The art works hanging in Zeitgeist Gallery were already about time. The opening fixed media (tape) piece interacted with a specific point in time (infant’s crib talk). Coleman performed the bagatelle in our time. Yet the score allowed the composer, Beethoven, to cross centuries of time to possess his performers in the here and now.
The second performance of the bagatelle was much more angular, with strident low strikes in Coleman’s left hand. Link found a different palette of sonic colors to contribute. In a word, the second performance was much more aggressive than the first. There was earnestness in Coleman’s playing. He wasn’t in this for himself; he was in this because he loved the music.
The closing work on the program set to music three of Mark Jarman’s poems, sung by Amy Jarman. Link provided digital accompaniment. Music can never rise about the level of the poem. Still, with Jarman’s poetry, Link had a lot of room to run.
The Jarman songs featured Mark and Amy Jarman performing in tandem – the poet recited his verse in its entirety while the soprano intoned specific lines. Link provided fixed electroacoustic accompaniment via a laptop.
Link was wise to include parts for live performers in his predominantly electronic soundscape, since it humanized an otherwise disembodied project. Having the poet and soprano pre-record their parts would have been less personal and immediate.
Jarman’s recitation was wonderful for this kind of work; he read without much vocal drama. The words themselves created their own excitement. Amy Jarman’s vocals were dramatic but sweet. It helped that she didn’t have to sing the entire poem verbatim, but just certain words or phrases as a part of Link’s composition. In that way she functioned more as a part of the ensemble than as the solo voice in an art song.
I’m always impressed by how Link uses conventional synthetic gestures to achieve such beauty. Hauntingly beautiful- interdisciplinary art like this is hard to do well. Most never rises above the level of experiment. Link’s innovative setting of Jarman’s poetry was magnificent.