18 July, 2009

Review: The Spatial Music Collective's '8.4'

There is a common misconception that electronic and electro-acoustic music is somehow less emotionally affecting than traditional acoustic music. The Spatial Music Collective’s 8.4, while pushing the boundaries of avant-garde music performance with its surrounding 8-channel speaker array, proved that any music can envelop and evoke. As a form of music that is by its nature not performance based, electro-acoustic music gives the composer a new scope for capturing the interests of their listeners. Spatiality is just one of those – while instrumental music can of course be transmitted through carefully placed speakers, electro-acoustic music can be written to incorporate the different speakers as part of the work itself, spreading sounds across the plane as another would spread ideas across parts. Electroacoustic music can be multidimensional in a way that other music can never be, and can effect its listener just as keenly.

The tight square of the NCH’s John Field Room was an ideal place for the set-up necessary for 8.4: the glimpses of sunset through the high windows amply compensating for the lack of a visual focal point, while the periphery of speakers acted like a barrier to the outside world. Opening piece, Brian Bridge’s Conduit, admirably exploited this set-up, using the spatial aspect of the work to draw the listener into an electronic world, though one in which sounds enter and grow organically before the whole structure decomposes. The effect is one of being part of a living electronic organism, beginning to go horribly, fatally wrong, leaving the listener almost gasping for breath. A nod to Douglas Adams in the programme notes betrays a humour evident mostly after the fact, and little felt during the piece itself. Sean Reed’s Imperishable Raptures, apparently not ‘requiring any point of arrival’, was a piece playing to a similar idea of enveloping the listener in an electronic world, but the effect is closer to tiptoeing around the insides of a computer rather than being part of one.

One other piece stands out of the seven as fully exploiting the possibilities of spatial composition: guest composer Eric Lyon’s Clusters demonstrates the possibility for extreme complexity inherent in electroacoustic music, unfettered by the need for the piece to be physically playable. Samples of piano are grouped, ordered and spun around the listener, dense passages alternating with sparse. Spatiality in this case is used to ‘create fundamentally different perspectives’ on the patterning of the samples depending on where the listener is situated in the room, as sounds swell and disperse around you.

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