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Sequenza 21: The Concert (Aftermath)

It's fascinating to witness parcels of history that work as convergence points of art, community, and technology. Last night's Sequenza 21 Concert at Elebash Recital Hall in the CUNY Graduate Center (New York City) seemed to be as vivid a convergence point as one could hope to find in the contemporary art music landscape.

Sequenza 21 is one of the most widely-read contemporary classical music websites on the Net today, consisting of a blog collective (ooh, tempted to say "Borg collective" - gotta watch my Star Trek obsessives! lol) from composers and performers. If you want a good overview of the modern art music scene, it's hard to find a more encompassing internet resource than this site. Over the summer, a simple idea germinated: why not put all the energies of Sequenza 21's contributing bloggers, composers and performers into presenting a concert? The call went out for composers to contribute scores and for performers to raise their virtual hands to lend their efforts into bringing those scores to life. Yes, yours truly jumped at the opportunity to participate in this exciting project, particularly after a MySpace meeting with David Toub, one of the site's main contributing editors, and a composer who "moonlights" as a gynecologist in the Philadelphia area. I have a really nice interview with David that i have to get around to editing as a podcast (just goes to show how backed up i am with my blog projects! sigh...)

To my delight, my offer was kindly received and i was given the opportunity to present two works: "Systems of Preference or Restraint" by Galen H. Brown for two pianos (i pulled a virtual Charlemagne Palestine with this performance, a la Golden Mean...more on this in a sec...), and "objects" for Piano, Marimba, and Electronic Organ (me on the organ this time!) by David Toub. Both Galen and David's works could be considered post-minimalist in nature: music that works with small repetitious elements to construct enormous landscapes of temporal and sonic shifts.

I nearly made a fatal mistake here: upon first glance, the music itself doesn't seem all that hard. Lots of repeating, simplistic figures - no problem, i thought, as i eyeballed the scores and mentally shelved them, thinking that it would be virtually sight-readable. Ah, but the devil it turns out is in the collaborative details! Galen's piece, as i mentioned, is for two keyboard instruments, but the idea was for me to play this by myself, given the fact that there would only be one piano on stage (a slight physical limitation!) In this instance, he proposed sending me a CD of a virtual piano rendition of one of the parts for me to play with. i think i gave a snooty response, requesting instead that he just send me the raw MP3 files instead - CD/tape is SO dead! hahahaha! Rather than trust an engineer to hit the "play" button at just the right moment, i wanted to opt for playing the sound file myself, using an audio editing program like Audacity to visualize the sound file for a more precise synchronization.

Using 2 Tablet PC's for Galen Brown's Piece

Given the start of Galen's piece, i opted to play the Piano 2 part (Piano 1 starts with running 16th notes, while Piano 2 starts with a sustained set of tied whole notes - easier for lining up the tempo) But when i started working on it, i was struck with how incredibly difficult it was to remain synchronized with the recording! Who knew that three note figures could be arranged in such maddeningly diverse patterns? I never imagined that the simplest elements could have such dastardly difficulties deeply embedded within them! The slowly dispersing pulse shifts, the out-of-phase harmonic drifts - i began to realize that Charlemagne Palestine's re-definition of so-called minimalist music as "MAX-imalist" is wonderfully accurate, as you are working with massive spectrums of time, rhythm, and slowly evolving harmonic blends that create a timeless sense of scale and aura. This was hard stuff!!

I used Audacity not only for the audio playback for the Piano 1 part, but also for visual track annotation: i was able to add placemarker letters on a label track that corresponded to key points in the score.

screenshot of Audacity used for audio playback and visual track cues

One concern i had was getting clear enough audio feedback so that i could accurately hear the recorded part. One little slip and realignment would be virtually impossible, given the speed and the lack of discernible musical contour! I originally planned to use noise-cancelling headphones, but silly me - i accidentally left them at home! Turns out the Audio Visual department at CUNY is amazing - they had some really nifty equipment, one being this device that could pull a clean signal from the headphone-out jack of my Compaq TC1100 Tablet PC:

a nifty laptop interface for pulling clean audio out of the headphone jack

Instead of using an eyesore pair of headphones, they also had a monitor speaker that did a surprisingly good job of feeding the audio back to the performer:

Practicing like a rock star:  using an audio feedback monitor

Tablet PC's to the rescue! I simply cannot imagine going back to using human page turners or even human CD/tape operators, given the complexity of this kind of music and the tight synchronization that needs to occur nonstrop throughout the piece! You may notice in the picture above that instead of using two Fujitsu Stylistic tablet pc's that i'm starting to use the smaller (10 inch screen) Compaq TC1100 for ancillary functions, like audio playback and visual elements (more on this in a sec!)

Galen Brown and my Tablet PC setup for his piece

Kudos to Galen for a terrific composition! I hope to get a copy of the recording from him - maybe he'll be kind enough to let me post it here? It's really full of terrific energy and sonic textures - and i think the performance went pretty well too! :)

Moving on to David's trio for Piano, Marimba and Electronic Organ, which closed the recital (Galen's piece closed the first half of the program). It's interesting to note that - correct me if i'm wrong, David - this is the first time his work has been performed live by live musicians! Hopefully this will the first of many, many performances of his work which really deserves some serious exposure! As i mentioned above, i was the organist for this setup - the fiendish pianistic duties were taken up by Daniel Beliavsky, and the rock-solid rhythmic backbone was provided by marimbist-extraordinare Bill Solomon.

Me with Bill Solomon and Daniel Beliavsky, rehearsing David Toub's piece "objects"

Minimalist music is tricky at best when played alone; in collaboration with others, it can be absolutely nightmarish, as the slightest miscount can quickly lead to disastrous results, given how difficult it is to re-orient yourself when the musical contours are as featureless as a Texan highway! That's not to say the music is boring - nothing could be further from that! The blending textures and rhythmic collisions create an aural canvas that is both immediately accessible to the ear and hypnotic in its epic scale of motion, drift, suspension and bloom. During our rehearsal the Friday before the concert, Daniel came up with the question: was there any way to have the score projected and automatically tracked so that we could follow along in case we got lost? The complex answer to that is "yes", there are programs like Home Concert Xtreme that do a really impressive job of 'tracking' piano performances with a scrolling score - the main problem in this situation lay in the fact that we were using an acoustic piano, not a MIDI keyboard. I believe AMuseTek makes an acoustic score tracking program, but it only works with solo piano (and i would be very dubious about its accuracy if the acoustic signature of the performance space was anything less than sterile - which it NEVER is, given echo, candy wrappers, and invasive cell phone chirps...) Rather than try something complex, i suggested we do something really really simple: create a slide presentation (using Liquid Media, my de facto presentation program heads and tails over PowerPoint) that would simply display the rehearsal letters corresponding to key spots in the score and sequentially triggered by a second Tablet PC and footswitch (exactly as i set up for Visual Recital performances). I initially thought about using my projector to throw the image up on my homemade screen, but then ditched that idea when i thought of the hassle of carrying all that extra equipment to NYC and back. Why not just use the TC1100 screen itself hoisted on a music stand? Turns out, we did one better: the AV guys had an extra 15 inch LCD monitor! The puppy was a little on the heavy side seated on the music stand, but fortunately it didn't tip over - voila, our 'virtual conductor', never yelling, never demeaning - if only real conductors could be as nice! LOL

virtual conductor for "objects" - never yells, never demeans - perfect!

the 'virtual conductor' from Bill's shoulder vantage - the screen is displaying the title of the piece, "objects" by David Toub

seeing the LCD monitor from Daniel's point of view

David makes nice mention of my "tablet guru" geek outs on his blog!

at the electronic organ for David Toub's "objects", next to Bill Solomon on marimba

One big drawback of closing the halves of the program was the fact that i really couldn't sit out in the audience to experience the other pieces. The snippets i heard from rehearsals really sounded terrific - i hope Sequenza 21 will post audio clips from the recital on their site asap! One noteworthy piece was a live electronics work by Anthony Cornicello entitled "The Gloved One" and featuring a P5 virtual reality glove interface:

P5, a crash-prone Mac, and MIDI interface elements galore for Anthony Cornicello

The resulting sound sculpture, blending elements of Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and other random sonic goodness was fascinating to hear and watch in rehearsal. Unfortunately, the Mac
Anthony was using kept crashing, resulting in a protracted intermission and a re-ordering of the program while he nursed the setup to life (sorry, i have to harp on this a bit as a PC user: this is the THIRD mention of a Mac crash that i heard this week!)

Well, i have to admit that my Tablet PC did crash - LITERALLY! After playing Galen's piece and getting ready for the intermission reset, one of the stage workers inadvertently closed the piano music rack while my Fujitsu Tablet PC was still on it!!! Yes, folks, that's right: the tablet pc tumbled to the floor with a heart-sickening crash! A horrified gasp sucked the air out of the hall and stage for a few heart-stopping moments. I bent down, fully expecting a spider-web of LCD screen cracks - well, well, well, wouldn't you know? Aside from a few faint barely discernible scratches, the Fujitsu powered up with almost a twinkle in its eye and a beefy smile through its Microsoft-inspired glowing display! Not that i ever want to test that capability again, but it was amazing to see how durable and well-built this puppy turned out to be! What a relief!! (FYI, i had the scores to the recital copied onto the TC1100 just in case of disaster, enabling me to use that unit for the performance if necessary - backup, backup, backup!)

I'll post some more pictures from the concert as soon as i'm able to - i also want to scan and post a PDF of the program, as the other composers and their works really need to be mentioned in this blog.

A few suggestions for improving the next Sequenza 21 concert:

  • Please leave room in the program for posting the performers' bios. While the focus is indeed on the composers and their works, it would seem to be more consistent within the collaborative spirit of this kind of project to share the credit with everyone involved


  • The CUNY security detail rushed everyone out of the hall at the conclusion of the concert, which ran way, way overtime (almost 3 hours by my count...), leaving no time for the yummy reception that sadly went untasted and the interpersonal mingling that had to be relegated to the post-concert restaurant for a small handful of us. The program needs to be scaled back in length - my suggestion would be no more than 2 hours max for the entire show, keeping in mind the time necessary for setup/takedown between works and the intermission.


  • this would be the perfect venue for a Visual Recital performance! LOL - sorry for the plug, but part of the presentation should not only be the exposure of contemporary composers and their works, but also new and innovative ways to bring the everyday audience into the experience. Visual accompaniments might be a powerful enhancement to these types of concerts.


  • Streaming audio and Video cameras. It would be great - someday - if we could have the concert streamed over the internet live. It would also be wonderful if we had an array of video cameras to capture the event, even if only in post-production. Next time i'll have to remember to bring my fleet of camcorders just in case...


  • Kudos to the Sequenza 21 team for a ground-breaking event and for the new friendships that have sprung from this fantastic collaboration!

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    18 comments:

    Hey Hugh - just saw your blog post thanks to the P5 list! A few comments as I was on the committee.

    1. Performer bios. Yes, that was idiotic. I got booted off of discussion from the program notes. Talk to David Toub about why he chose not to put them in. Nobody that I know was happy with that decision.

    2. Streaming audio and video - I was hoping to do that - maybe next time. The problem is that in truth, the audience for these types of concerts is not big enough to justify the effort and we really didn't have enough time to see what network/cable/laptop and server resources might have been made available to us.

    3. Concert length. Well, if we'd known the security was going to kick us out, we'd definitely factored that in differently, but we were attempting to feature the collective musical consciousness of a big web community.

    And, Hugh, your performance was magnificent! Thanks so much for sharing your fantastic pianism and your technological expertise. We didn't get a chance to talk after the concert, and I'd love you to check out my music when you get a chance:

    http://jeffharrington.org
    by: jeff harrington (contact) - 22 Nov '06 - 04:55
    Hugh, thanks for your great description of the concert. I also want a copy of Galen's piece, which was fantastic! And of course, you, Daniel and Bill did an amazing job with <a href="http://homepage.mac.com/dto...">objects</a>.

    I would also have like to have seen performer biographies included in the program. I disagree with Jeff's comment about this---I am not aware that it came up in discussions, and to be honest, think it was an oversight on our collective parts. One main reason, however, for the oversight is that it wasn't until later in the process that I received the finalized performer list. It was pretty tough to get bios from all the composers, let alone the performers. I think this has to be something that is done for any future concerts; the performers <b>were</b> the concert, period. I also suspect there were not enough programs printed---a consequence of the fact that there probably were more people at the concert than we had expected, which is great news.

    I also was disappointed by getting pushed out of the concert hall right at the close of the concert. I know we were trying to get some photos together at the end, and that prevented that from happening.

    I do have to say that Tony Cornicello told me last night that the piece also crashed a PC last week, so at least the bugs are platform-independent (or equal-opportunity, depending on how one looks at it). I'm actually sitting here typing this on my iBook with a HP laptop next to me, so I've learned to go both ways. But the Mac is better for what I do, and it's great to have more than one OS out there.

    The concert actually was running on schedule until intermission derailed it a bit, along with some technical glitches in the second half. I agree it went on pretty long, but we had to balance being shorter against our desire to be maximally inclusive. As it is, we only had works by 12 composers represented, and would have liked to have been able to include more.

    Thanks again---we'll have to get together for lunch again (and I'm also looking forward to the podcast going live).
    by: david toub (contact) - 22 Nov '06 - 07:00
    David, I'm not going to allow you to turn this into a collective memory problem. There were no discussions about the program after we disageed on the format (your menu proposal and your rationalizations for not including composer bios, song lyrics etc. which were later included). End of story.

    After that there was no more discussion by decree. We were told, it's David's job, no more discussion. I will not be associated, nor will the committee in general with this. End of story and my last comment on this.

    Hugh, I'm really sorry to carry this onto your board, but it was frankly not right and I will not be associated with the decision. Performers deserve at least as much credit for this concert as do the folks that put the notes on paper.
    by: jeff harrington (contact) - 22 Nov '06 - 07:21
    Well, i think we can all agree to make sure the performers' bios get included in some fashion for future programs - didn't really bother me personally, but i did hear some grumbling backstage about the issue so i had to report it in the blog. As for the Mac crash issues, i have to confess my closet lust for Macs in general - i love to tease about the 'other' OS, but i think the main issues are usually the fact that both OS' (PC and Mac) have their strengths and weaknesses. I really shouldn't criticize Macs too much, as i don't own one myself (still, still waiting for the mythical Mac Tablet - if it ever appears, i think i'll be the first in line to snatch one up!), but it's a Curtis vs. Juilliard, Harvard vs. U.Penn kinda jab that i find irrisistable to jump into from time to time!

    Thanks for all your efforts to put such an exciting project together! It must have been crazy difficult to distill the final list of composers to be represented, but i applaud the musical variety and breadth of the final result! Who knows? Maybe someday Sequenza 21 concerts will be part of a day/week-long festival-type event where multiple performances span several days, interspersed with workshops, composer discussion forums, experimental presentations, streaming shows, etc...
    by: Hugh (contact) - 22 Nov '06 - 07:37
    Jeff, you brought it up on this board, which probably would not have been my choice. Since you raised the issue, I had to respond.

    You are very correct in that the performers deserved most of the credit for the concert---all of us involved agree with that. And you're correct that a group discussion on the program design was tabled by someone else on the committee (not me), who wisely realized that the discussion was getting out of hand, was turning personal and nasty, and was unproductive. We had better things to do that bicker, wouldn't you agree? But the discussions revolved around having a bifold versus simple stapled sheets; the discussions at no time ever related to biographies, composer or performer. Including composer biographies, as I recall, was my suggestion at a later date, and only after some modifications were made in the design to accommodate additional content.

    Jeff, our personal differences are not appropriate for Hugh's blog, and I'd just prefer to leave our dispute offline, or just agree to disagree. Let's not ruin what was a really positive experience for all of us, in no small measure due to expert professionals like Hugh and everyone else who performed.
    by: david toub (contact) - 22 Nov '06 - 07:42
    Hugh and blog readers - a little YouTube video of The Gloved One::

    http://hughsung.com/blog/in...
    by: jeff harrington (contact) - 22 Nov '06 - 07:47
    by: jeff harrington (contact) - 22 Nov '06 - 07:48
    Thanks Jeff! That is soooo cool - makes me want a P5 glove for myself now!
    by: Hugh (contact) - 22 Nov '06 - 08:13
    You can get them for like $12!!! I have 3. ComputerGeeks used to have them. They're being dumped. Mac/PC interface is good. Plenty of music software (all a little rough).
    by: jeff harrington (contact) - 22 Nov '06 - 08:49
    Seriously?? Where? I see them quoted online for $99 - can you send me a link? I'd certainly pick up a bunch for $12!!
    by: Hugh (contact) - 22 Nov '06 - 08:57
    Yikes, I guess they're turning into collector's items - no more at Geeks.com. eBay had a few for under $40 and Froogle:

    http://froogle.google.com/f...
    by: jeff harrington (contact) - 22 Nov '06 - 10:10
    Hugh, just to back you up as someone outside the community, I immediately noticed that performer bios were conspicuously missing. My first thought was "wow, that's disrespectful." It doesn't really matter what the motive is--performers are an integral part of the concert, and omitting their information just isn't okay. Please include them next time.
    by: Clara (contact) - 22 Nov '06 - 20:55
    Hugh,
    Thanks for the description! Feels like I was there. I second your thought about broadcasting it over the internet. You are like the James Brown of contemporary piano, huh? The hardest working man in show business.
    by: Charles Griffin (contact) - 23 Nov '06 - 02:00
    Clara, as mentioned, no disrespect was intended. Having bios of any kind was an afterthought, and of course there are bugs to be worked out in any concert. This was a learning experience, and our focus was on making this happen, and some of the nuances were lost, as Hugh very appropriately pointed out above.

    But let's focus on the positives---a lot of new music was played, many works for the first time ever. The performances were first rate, and there were far more positives than negatives. One shouldn't lose sight of the positives; it's too easy to get bogged down by second-guessing, and "woulda, coulda, shoulda."

    This concert enlisted a great roster of musicians who were genuinely dedicated to new music, including Hugh. That's the take-home message here.
    by: concert committee person (contact) - 23 Nov '06 - 08:00
    Hugh,

    Thanks for the kind words on my piece! I'm glad you were interested in the technology - I guess you're another 'techno-geek'.

    Your playing was fantastic! I like your enthusiasm and energy. We should definitely talk - I've been thinking about a Max and Piano piece....
    by: Anthony Cornicello (contact) - 27 Nov '06 - 07:45
    One more thing: I'd like to grab some of those photos for my own website, if that's okay. I'll make sure to credit you.
    by: Anthony Cornicello (contact) - 27 Nov '06 - 07:46
    Hi Anthony! I would LOVE to collaborate on any projects you have in mind! I'm trying to think if there could be any way i might be able to incorporate a P5 for my own piano work - that would be too cool! I'd love to learn more about the software and hardware you used for your piece - the textures and sonic manipulations were really really amazing!
    Feel free to grab whatever photos are on my site - i'll try to see if i have any extra pictures of you and post them to the picture gallery (http://www.hughsung.com/blo...) - can you send me your website URL? I want to add you to my "Favorite Musicians" column! Take care and keep in touch!
    by: Hugh (contact) - 27 Nov '06 - 08:18
    Hugh,
    My email (better contact) is cornicello@sbcglobal.net, and my URL is http://www.anthonycornicell...
    by: Anthony Cornicello (contact) - 27 Nov '06 - 20:42



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    Title: Sequenza 21: The Concert (Aftermath)
    Date posted: Nov 21 '06 - 22:03
    Filed under: Concerts and Events


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