Vanishing into the Clouds: Dal Niente at ICMC
by Ammie Brod
I like doing things that push me to learn new skills, or that use skills that I already have in new and interesting ways. This is, in part, what drew me to new music in the first place—I love the more or less constant innovation taking place within the art form. Whatever else I may believe about the world at large I can rest assured that there will always be something new to learn, and that knowledge is a springboard for excitement and inspiration.
I was one of six members of Dal Niente who attended the International Computer Music Conference at the University of North Texas in Denton at the end of September. ICMC was an unusual experience for us as an ensemble—usually when we travel, we’re rehearsing and performing as a group, but this time almost all of our performances were for solo instruments and electronics. The conference itself was a jam-packed experience for all involved, with 31 concerts, as well as a large number of paper presentations, demonstrations, and installations, all in just seven days. (Hat tip to the staff: In the concerts I was able to attend there was only one real technological blip, which is highly impressive given that nearly every piece contained a technological component.) The Nientes alone performed twenty different pieces in six different performances during our two-day stay.
I wasn't sure exactly what to expect at a computer music conference, a genre that I'm admittedly less familiar with than other areas of contemporary performance. In particular, playing solo works with live electronics was an experience that I hadn't had yet, and as I worked on my parts at home and listened to recordings and communicated with composers, I felt simultaneously prepared and aware that there was going to be an unknown factor to the performance: I wouldn't be able to experience the piece in its entirety until just before the show, when I finally got to hear my part paired with its electronics and explore how I wanted to interact with the,. All of my pieces involved my performance being run through various programs, under the supervision of either the composer or another knowledgeable party, and then manipulated or incorporated into an electronic texture. Essentially, I would be playing against my own sounds (among other things), in some cases making artistic decisions on the spot depending on the flexibility of the notation and what I was hearing in real time.
I played three solo pieces during my time at ICMC, all quite different. Mikel Kuehn's Colored Shadows combined notated lyrical passages with a certain amount of interpretive freedom—there are several improvised sections on open strings where the performer chooses from a number of different gestures in order to augment and interplay with the electronic textures that are building up in the performance space. Joel Hunt’s Material, on the other hand, begins with quiet percussive effects, building from unpitched sounds to defined pitched phrases; I tapped different parts of my fingers in various rhythms on the body of the instrument, tapped the bridge with my fingernail, and knocked on the front before finally moving into more melodic material. As I played (at a bar, trying to make sure my tapping was making it over the clink of glasses and small talk), my own textures leapt out at me, finally building to a roar that lasted until I reasserted myself with a quietly moving line, ending with a gentle decrescendo into silence.
All of that, as well as performances of two ensemble pieces by Clarence Barlow and Johannes Kretz, took place on our first day at the conference. I only had one piece scheduled for the second day, Jacob Sudol’s Vanishing into the Clouds. Jacob’s piece begins with a series of long tones (at one point I played an open C string for a minute and a half) with subtle timbral shifts, varying the bow speed, pressure and placement to change the quality of a single note over a set period of time. Many of the notes are unstable, so the timbral shifts bring out different pitches and overtones over the course of time. The piece eventually moves into a series of subtle microtonal shifts played high on the D string, a range and placement that robs them of some of their warmth, while still asking the performer to phrase and shape the line. The contrast between the somewhat flattened nature of the notes and the desire to express something through them had been difficult, and I was interested to meet their composer and see what more I could learn by talking with him in person.
There are conversations about music that focus on pragmatic things (how to produce a certain sound, what overall aesthetic the composer was writing within) and there are conversations that reach a step beyond that, into a realm of excitement and exploration and inspiration. My conversation with Jacob moved seamlessly between those realms, from pinning down a specific timbre to discussions of how I’d be interacting with the electronics to something larger, a feeling about what the piece was meant to convey. I couldn’t put into words, but the discussion made it come together for me in a new way. It felt like an idea coming into focus, a clarity of interpretation that I’d been trying to reach on my own but hadn’t quite hit yet. The microtonal section I’d been struggling with came together, and I could feel that my brain and body finally knew how to produce the sound I wanted to create. It was, in a word, thrilling.
I carried that feeling with me into that evening’s performance, and it was deeply satisfying to not only present it to a live audience but to also hear it reflected back at me through Jacob’s electronics. I played over a chorus of textures created in part from the sounds I’d produced, and I felt deeply calm and present onstage. As the last almost inaudible harmonic faded out, I felt like something had been accomplished, and communicated, and learned.
When Dal Niente attended the International Summer Courses in Darmstadt, Germany, we were identified not as musicians or performers but as interpreters. To me, that distinction has always felt important—it feels like I’ve been given an investment in the creative process of a performance that isn’t always acknowledged, and it’s something I try to live up to when I play. In Texas, I felt that I succeeded.