Review by Joel Roberts
On Sunday afternoon at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, the sounds of murmuring electronics gently eclipsed the noises of an expectant audience at the performance of Illud Etiam. Named after a work by Philippe Manoury, four works were performed by soprano Juliana Snapper and composer Miller Puckette. At this point in the festival, I was uncertain of what to expect next.
The question that had derailed my expectations was simply “what should one expect at an exploratory music festival?” Would there be New Music; Experimental music; Other Music; the Avant Garde; Wacky Shit? My experience at the Festival successfully shifted my sense of cultural framing. Another shift in this area was as a result of witnessing Snapper and Puckette’s staging of You who will emerge from the flood. Described as an opera, this hybrid work included a soprano who sang underwater, an electronic score, a glass-walled dunking tank and a pair of large projector screens and was the sort of work that could have been placed within the worlds of theatre, opera or visual art.
Illud Etiam was presented in a simple and direct manner in the Bendigo Bank Theatre, an ornate rectangular room that had originally housed masonic meetings. A single microphone pointed directly across a pair of music stands which had been arranged like a dais or news-desk giving the impression that we were about to witness a sermon or news conference. Snapper’s appearance in a simple black dress reinforced the unencumbered nature of this performance, a stark contrast to the metre-long merkin worn in You who will emerge. The room’s simplicity and a simple lighting set-up only emphasised the program’s more dramatic moments. The dry acoustic of the room also enabled the audio processes to be completely controlled within the electronic environment. Together, these elements intensified the focus on Snapper’s performance and Puckette’s electronic soundscape.
A flash of light marked the beginning of selections from Manoury’s song cycle, En Écho. The songs sounded like poetic matter of fact accounts and stories in the manner of recitative. Manoury’s approach to the vocal writing was engaging while remaining within the realm of the conventional. Early into the performance, it was clear that Snapper’s ability to communicate as a singer completely eclipsed the fact that I had no understanding of the French text. Completely engaged in her performance, I also had a growing awareness of the richness of the electronics. More accurately described as orchestration, Manoury’s sweeping electronic landscape evolved and developed with the richness of any conventional orchestration.
The principal timbre of the electronics, a “hybrid keyboard”, was a blend of piano, bell, and organ-like sounds that provided a strong musical presence throughout the work. In places a “scribbling” sound was transformed into a whimpering. In another, excited gestures of electronic sounds would overflow in response to the singer’s sounds. At other times, quiet “voices” could be heard within the musical texture. I began to wonder if I was hearing pre-recorded sounds, or spontaneous electronic responses to the singer? All these elements contributed to the excitement of this performance. In places, Snapper appeared to be waiting for an electronic response to her singing. This human-machine improvisation further enhanced the sense of excitement in the performance.
After the performance, Puckette explained to me that he had created the electronic platform for the work, which he then taught to Manoury, who realised the work’s orchestration. I discovered that Puckette was officially listed as a collaborator on the work, an element that would have been worthwhile to add to a program. The improvisation that I had heard was a result of the programming. The computer “knew” the score and followed the singer, anticipating events and responding to them in real time. To me, this represented an aspect of artificial intelligence which emulated the skills of great musicians from any style.
Snapper’s own composition, Double Voiced, provided a different approach to singer-electronics interaction that sounded more like an ensemble. An array of electronic textures provided richly harmonised choral accompaniment, counterpoint and immediate responses to the vocalist, sometimes in the manner of a duet. The use of a huge digital reverb, in contrast to the room’s acoustics, was an auditory pleasure. In places, the electronics’ timbre resembled the sounds of extended techniques on acoustic instruments.
At other times the electronics sounded like hysterical laughing. Sometimes it was difficult to distinguish the live vocal from the processed sound, a feature particular to this work. One of the difficulties as an audience member at this festival was the omission of program notes for all performances. I think this is problematic because it is hard to frame and contextualise works without some background. It could be suggested that this is an elitist approach that is not interested in cultivating audiences from outside the new-music scene.
For example, the text to Illud Etiam, another Australian premiere by Manoury, had been impenetrable to me until after the performance. It was clear that the piece had a religious context and some parts of the text were in latin. The religious connotations were reinforced by the sounds of electronic bells which permeate the work like a Yamaha dx-7 on steroids! By looking online I discovered that the work was inspired by scenes from Bergman’s film Seventh Seal, which deals with issues around sorcery. The text is a blend of an original medieval text and a poem by Louise Labe. While the singer plays the dual roles of inquisitor and victim, the dynamic intensity of her voice triggers “sound flames”. In this case, the greater the volume, the greater the degree of instability in the electronics. According to Manoury, the fire represents both punishment and the woman’s desire to be consumed.
Early into the performance it surprised me to realise that this concert was essentially a traditional vocal recital. A freshness and excitement (the experimental) was added to this through the use of a distinctive timbral palette, computer indeterminacy and improvisational elements. Despite the incredible volume and quality of audio production, there is not the same sense of deep immersion that one feels when an orchestra is accompanying a soloist. For example, Snapper maintained a sense of character throughout the performance, except in moments where she was waiting for a response from the electronics. However, I’m sure this is something that could be developed, if it needed to be Is it the result of the piece having an improvisational aspect to it and the artist simply needing to tune in to a spontaneous electronic response? Snapper and Puckette’s use of experimental music making within the context of traditional staging and presentation contributed to a successful and deeply engaging performance.
Juliana Snapper and Miller Puckette
Bendigo Bank Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
3 September 2017
En Écho, Philippe Manoury; Double Voiced, Juliana Snapper; Illud Etiam, Philippe Manoury.