Christopher penrose

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.

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