Franz Liszt’s out of tune piano was one of many found sounds that Chicago-based composer Anthony Cheung’s showcased in his work, “SynchroniCities” , that opened the MusicNOW concert.
Cheung explains, “The genesis of the piece was in 2012 when I was living and writing in Rome. I wanted to take advantage of all the traveling I would be doing that year and I got into the habit of taking recordings with portable recording equipment. I had long been fascinated with all sorts of sounds and had already taken recordings from sources in Taiwan, Germany and the States, among others.
“I didn’t go out to find sounds in themes such as bell sounds, perhaps Buddhist temples or French cathedrals. What happened was that I noticed that regardless of geographical location these sounds had more in common than I thought they would. In SynchroniCities I wanted to take these common sounds and play with perception.
“The piece came together in four sections, all very different from one another. A quirky aspect of the piece is that it uses subtle live processing, an autotune for the piano part that I had been experimenting with to distort the sound of the live piano in an unconventional way. You hear the piano sound begin to be autotuned with different settings. For example one is an ancient tuning system but others come from different chronologies as well so that the listener has a perception struggle—“Is it live or autotuned?”.
“Another wrench thrown into the machine was the piano played by Franz Liszt in the 19th Century that had been left out of tune and not played for decades so that it had an ethereal changed quality.
“…I purposely try to avoid specificity in this piece because I had various places and wanted to make connections that weren’t geographic or culturally specific. Masking the source is the point of the piece.”
To hear the contrast with another Cheung work where he tries to evoke specific associations—in this case fog horns—play this video link.
Following the electro-acoustic “SynchroniCities”, a lone acoustic violin played by Qing Hou accompanied a dreamlike montage of a repeated scene from a 1926 black and white movie “The Bells”. This piece, “Light is Calling”, by composer Michael Gordon was inspired by the events of September 11th.
While the movie replayed sepia-toned images and cobbled them anew like a recurring dream, warped electronic pulses from the violin were playing backwards. While the connection to September 11 wasn’t all that obvious, the effect of movie and music collage was mesmerizing.
John Luther Adams dedicated his string quartet “The Wind in High Places” to his late friend and fellow environmentalist and Alaska enthusiast Gordon Wright. Each instrument was played with open strings and it not only sounded like its title but also captured the feeling a natural landscape so beauteous that one is afraid to blink and lose sight of it.
In his recorded video intro Adams explained that he was aiming for the sound of an aeolian harp—one played by the wind—and this was absolutely what one heard. The four string performers (Baird Dodge on violin, Sylvia Kim Kilcullen on violin, Weijing Wang on Viola and Joshua Zajac on cello) seemed almost to be a mirage as the image of pipes played by wind superceded.
Last, but certainly not least, was CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Mason Bates’ work “The Rise of Exotic Computing”. This was performed by a 14-piece ensemble of strings, winds, trumpet, piano and harp, and laptop and had originally been commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
This was an especially dynamic piece with instruments clashing at times and at others quickly combining, all with an accompanying electronic driving rhythm. It was perhaps particularly exquisite in the fullness of its sound because of the two relatively minimalist sounds in the two prior pieces.
As with all MusicNOW concerts, a pizza and beer party followed with a chance to mingle with the composers in attendance and the orchestra.
This was the first concert in the final year of Mason Bates and Anna Clyne’s curation of the MusicNOW series. These concerts are held in the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park (205 East Randolph Drive, Chicago) .
Tickets and information can be found at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra website or by calling 312 294 3000.
Photos: Todd Rosenberg, unless otherwise indicated