Chamber Music Northwest review: Enchanting enhancements

Modern technology complements contemporary music in enlightening multimedia concert 

It has become a dull commonplace that technology rushes us and disconnects us. I had the opposite experience of a late July Chamber Music Northwest New@Noon concert at Portland State University, a multimedia affair in the basement of Lincoln Hall bringing together video, animation, responsive A.I. programs, and the music of contemporary composers Bonnie Miksch, Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, and Bruce Adolphe.

Portland composer Bonnie Miksch started the concert with Every tendril, a wish. Miksch, who composed the music and text in 2007 for her son Grover, sang along with her own electroacoustic accompaniment, while Grover’s father Christopher Penrose handled interactive graphics. I have the privilege of studying with Dr. Miksch at PSU, where she chairs the School of Music as well as the composition area, and she was gracious enough to let me ask her a few questions about her process. As a composer of electroacoustic music, Miksch is somewhat unusual in that she prefers working with harmonic, pitched content—“unabashedly exploring beauty”, in her words—over the “blips, buzzes, and blurps” we often associate with Academic Electro-Acoustic Music (e.g., that of Schaeffer, Babbitt, Stockhausen, Ligeti, et al).

Penrose (l) and Miksch at Chamber Music Northwest.

Penrose (l) and Miksch at Chamber Music Northwest.

Every tendril, a wish began with musical material generated by Penrose’s program Hyperupic, which maps sound to 2d images; in this case Miksch chose black-and-white photographs for their high contrast, which I heard reflected in the music. This background electroacoustic texture, which Miksch describes as a landscape to interact with as a vocalist, consists entirely of recorded sounds (“sounds of playfulness and childhood”) subjected to extensive electronic processing such as filtering. Neither the electroacoustic accompaniment nor the vocal melody change from one performance to the next; rather, it is the video component which is interactive. As Miksch sang, Penrose’s computer captured both her voice and the electronic tracks, and he manipulated the video using the popular music program Max (originally developed at the Parisian electroacoustic music research institute IRCAM). Although Penrose adjusts the graphics in real-time, he is still working with “possibilities within constrained parameters.” The result: a “self-similar” multimedia piece: always different, always the same.

Although I must confess I’ve never been a huge fan of visuals in music, the music itself would have been captivating enough for me: a long, elegant melody, dissonance gradually emerging from consonance against drone-like, tonally static but texturally diverse soundscapes. With Miksch illuminated only by a small lamp and Penrose lit only by the low light of his monitors, I was able to focus on the interaction of music with abstract graphics: vibrating lines swirling and overlapping, fields of color expanding and contracting, constantly evolving in response to the contours of the music and content of the text.

Fruit Loops

After Miksch and Penrose’s gently hypnotic opening, Jaroslaw Kapuscinski’s Juicy was perfectly startling. The six-movement suite also combined soloist with interactive video, in this case piano (Tennessee native and Yale School of Music professor Melvin Chen, now in his third season with CMNW) with computer-synchronized animation. The video component, a series of animated slides created by the composer with sculptor and animator John Edmark, was controlled by Chen’s piano using Antescofo, an electronic music synchronization program also developed at IRCAM. The stop-motion animation, befitting the title, consisted of slides of different fruits in various configurations: sliced and whole, alone and in Warholesque iterations, static and revolving. The computer used Chen’s playing to finesse the animation, matching the motion of the slides to the subtleties of Chen’s phrasing, unmetered pauses, and changes in tempo. I couldn’t help wondering what the great pioneer of music for animation, Carl Stalling, would have done with a program like this. (Note: the video below is from a different performance.)

Kapuscinski’s piano music sounds a lot like Chopin, naturally (Kapuscinski studied at Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw), and there were moments that reminded me of Satie and especially of Brahms’ Six Pieces for Piano. The animation reflected its character: whimsical, Gershwin-like mobs of lemons and berries, thunderously dramatic scenes of oranges being halved and quartered, and an almost absurdly sentimental ode to a revolving kiwi that brought me to the edge of tears. One especially memorable movement featured a grid full of blueberries getting obliterated, one at a time, by gunfire. By this point I was starting to really feel how beautiful, profound, personal, and deeply human such technologically augmented multimedia music can be.

Einstein’s Light

New York composer Bruce Adolphe’s duet for violin and piano, Einstein’s Light, originally composed for the Nickolas Barris film of the same name, derives its musical material from pieces by Mozart and Bach, whose music Albert Einstein adored: the solo violin movement from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004, and the other four movements from Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 34 in Bb Major, K. 378, the piece the theoretical physicist performed on his only existing musical recording. Adolphe’s music never merely paraphrases Bach’s and Mozart’s music, but uses certain phrases and harmonic patterns as a jumping off point for his own compositional process, which Adolphe describes as a physics-inspired “thought experiment”; although the music was still recognizably related to Mozart and Bach, I heard echoes of several mid-20th-century composers, particularly Messiaen.

I don’t know if I would say the music sounded quite like E-mc2, but I certainly heard suggestions of mass-energy equivalence somewhere in all the long, singing violin lines, widely spaced non-tertian chords, and especially the energetic rhythms of the opening Theme. Quoting Einstein, Adolphe reminds us that “logic gets you from A to B. Imagination takes you everywhere.”

Violinist and CMNW veteran Jennifer Frautschi (now in her ninth season), accompanied on the piano by Adolphe, evoked Einstein’s compelling personality and legacy: his restless curiosity, his intellectual flights of rational fantasy, his devotion to both creativity and tradition, and finally his deep loneliness. The film itself occasionally reminded me of the work of similarly experimental film directors such as Errol Morris and Godfrey Reggio. Expansive shots of vast landscapes—from forests to cities to our solar system and into outer space—are overlaid with digital streams of flowing light and cascading mathematical equations. The combined effect of visual grandeur and musical intimacy was breathtaking.

It is common to disdain technology as accelerant and corrupter of culture; it is perhaps equally banal to assert that technology is what we make of it. Nevertheless, this technologically enhanced concert proved an enlightening experience, displaying three very different ways in which technology can be used for the expression of joy, hope, beauty, humor, community, and creativity.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer and percussionist studying at Portland State University. He and his music can be reached at

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