Third Practice Festival and Electroacoustic Improvisation (Part One)

I just returned from the Third Practice Electroacoustic Music Festival, one of my favorites. This was the 10th year of the festival, founded and run by composer Benjamin Broening and held at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA. Among other great things about this festival is that the ensemble-in-residence is eighth blackbird, who have a feature concert on the festival and also contribute as individual performers of various works programmed throughout the festival.

One of the really attractive aspects of Third Practice is that the festival presents a broad sampling of different styles and technical approaches to contemporary electroacoustic music, and the programmed works are always excellent examples of their types. This year was no exception, and I will write about some pieces I heard this year that integrate improvisation into electroacoustic music. Disclaimer: 1) I performed as part of Willful Devices on Saturday night, and while improv is a big part of what we do and as much as I love talking about what I do, I won’t, and 2) due to a long plane delay in Cleveland (including an aborted take-off attempt; that was a first!), I didn’t arrive in time to hear performances on Friday, so I’ll only discuss some works from Saturday’s concerts.

Music in the Western classical tradition has had, let’s say, a sometimes uneasy relationship with improvisation in the past century. That topic alone is a subject worthy of many dissertations, articles and blogs. But electroacoustic music practice is a genre of music making that has effectively allowed for an exploration of the possibilities of improvisation and real-time music creation. The reasons probably have something to do with the technical aspects of making electroacoustic music, but I think also have to do with the fact that many practitioners come from a broad variety of musical backgrounds, including those founded on improvisational principles.

Many different approaches to incorporating improvisation into electroacoustic performance are available to composers and performers, and there’s a continuum of possibilities ranging from the highly structured and controlled choice-based improvisation approach to truly free improv. The following works from the festival are each really excellent pieces that also incorporate and explore improvisation in unique and different ways.

métal re-sculpté, by Heather Frasch, is for bari sax and real-time electronics and it received an excellent performance by saxophonist Susan Fancher. This work exemplifies an approach that involves a mixture of composed sections and structured improvisation, often built around a dialogue between the performer and computer-generated sounds that is managed by the performer. Improvisational sections involve a choice of musical materials with directions to tailor the performance in response to the electroacoustic music being generated. The amount of time spent on these sections, the proportions of the overall form of the piece, are determined by the performer, who either triggers or cues a computer operator to allow for the advancement of the computer programming to the next section of the music when they deem it musically appropriate. A variation on this method allows the computer operator/performer to also choose when a section is complete, or can even initiate changes to the processing in order to elicit a different improvisation with each performance. Where the performer alone is in control, there is a feedback circle between performer and the electroacoustic sound in the space; the second method expands the feedback circle to include the performer at the computer/mixing desk.

This approach to integrating improvisation has the advantage of guaranteeing certain outcomes, of a certain composed structure being present in each performance. At the same time, it allows for a fluidity of performance to occur, as determined by the performer’s improvisation each time. Improv not going well? Move on. Is it really rocking and the audience is really responding? Stay with it. It’s a technique you encounter even in otherwise free improv pieces and when it’s thoughtfully conceived and incorporated, the results are great, as in métal re-sculpté.

Juraj Kojs’ Pastoral Care moves further along the continuum in the direction of free improvisation with a large-scale structure defined by a larger concept. Performed at the festival by the composer, the work begins with a disassembled instrument (a fujara, which is a Slovakian shepherds bass flute, almost 2 meters long) laid out on the stage under a cloth. Microphones on the stage pick up sound to be processed by a computer, at first created by treating the three portions of the flute as percussion instruments. The conceptual structure of the piece is defined by two elements, 1) the pre-composed processing which changes over time, responding differently to the input, and 2) the gradual construction of the instrument, performed in different ways throughout the construction process, ultimately being performed as originally intended once it is complete.

This improvisational approach owes much to the visual arts/performance art tradition, and is a kind of process piece. The process is utterly comprehensible and predictable, once you understand that the performer is constructing an instrument. This is obscured by the pieces of the instrument initially being hidden under a cloth and the use of a fairly obscure instrument, but this creates an element of mystery that engages the audience immediately. Knowing the outcome provides a structural framework for the audience much the same way that improvising over a 12-bar blues structure does. Besides providing a logical framework for the composition, it allows the improviser to play with, deny, fulfill, or satisfy in surprising and novel ways our expectations, which has everything to do with comprehending the underlying structure.

Electroacoustic music provides a unique means to this improvisatory framework, which was also operating in Pastoral Care. Where a 12-bar blues, or a classical Sonata-Allegro are informed or defined by a background harmonic structure over which the performer can improvise, ornament or embellish, here there is a background sound processing structure that defines the form of the piece sonically, over which the performer improvises, limited by the state of construction that the fujara is in.

métal re-sculpté and Pastoral Care are just two of dozens of excellent and excellently performed works at this year’s Third Practice Festival. They both exemplify some very effective methods to integrating improvisation into electroacoustic music performance. Next week, I’ll continue with a look at another work from the festival that, while it isn’t presented as an improvisatory piece, presents possibilities and raises some interesting questions about the possibilities for real-time, interactive electroacoustic music making.

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