Duo attempts to humanize electronic music

Bob Gluck/Joseph Reinsel Electronic Music Duo (Simon’s Rock, February 9, 2002)

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 10, 2002) – Live electronic music might seem like a paradox or a contradiction in terms. Can music that is completely generated by electronic circuitry be considered live, even if it is manipulated in real time by dial- and knob-twiddling human beings?

On Saturday night at Simon’s Rock College, Joe Reinsel and Bob Gluck did their best to assert for themselves the role of musician and composer, albeit ones whose primary instrument was the Apple computer.

Reinsel, a member of the electronic music faculty at Simon’s Rock, most directly challenged preconceived notions of what it is to be a musician, if not a composer. The two original pieces he played were entirely manipulated by dials and his computer keyboard. And his sonic palette drew heavily from the sounds of industry, both low-tech (pile-drivers, dynamos) and high-tech (computerized blips and bleeps).

Occasionally sounds that are more conventionally thought of as music, such as sampled sounds of cellos, made their way into Reinsel’s pieces, excerpts from a larger work called “From the Center Out.” The first section, “Slight Rotation,” began with a mother pitch which seemingly moved around in a circle, giving the effect of listening to it from different sides. The spatial nature of the piece was then enhanced by having the sound of ocean waves breaking on a beach, or rather, onto the mother pitch itself.

This pastoral, lyrical opening was then transformed by a deep tone and shrapnel-like sounds, with jittery, skittering effects not unlike some of the nervous sounds that characterize some contemporary pop-electronica or hip-hop. In its full treatment, Reinsel’s piece includes a video element which was not part of Saturday night’s rendering.

On several homemade instruments that combine the manipulation of resonance with computer technology, Gluck made more of a conscious effort to evoke the traditional relationship between musician and instrument. One can hardly imagine an instrument more traditional than the Hebrew shofar, a proto-trumpet made from the horn of a ram. Gluck wired the shofar so that the sounds played on it were electronically processed and controlled by finger movements on the body of the shofar.

“Shofaralong” opened with the conventional sounds of the shofar, which
were recorded, looped and then manipulated, given an underwater quality. Suddenly the shofar blast, which can imply alarm, sounded like a contemporary siren, and then split into several different, simultaneous blasts of alarm. Later, it had the quality of a dolphin’s cry or a baby’s wail, before the piece ended with just the sound of pure human breath.

Gluck’s “A Neighborhood Somewhat Different from the One You Live In” drew its inspiration from the unravelling of the Middle East peace process. The piece included looped and manipulated speech by former President Bill Clinton and presumably Arab and Israeli leaders. Using his custom-made eBoard, a guitar-like instrument that, according to the program, contains “I-Cube sensors and digitizer and custom-designed software interfaces using the music programming application Max/MSP,” Gluck built a soundscape around the voices, producing sounds by simply touching the neck in various positions, plucking a group of four dulcimer strings attached with parts from a violin and an electric guitar, and literally moving the sounds around by tilting and lifting the instrument.

Gluck’s piece, “Miles Before,” played on a modified saz, a classical Turkish long-neck string instrument, promised to be the most musical in conventional terms, drawing on the tradition of the Ottoman Makam. Technical glitches, however, resulted in about half of the piece being confined to Gluck’s hard drive.

The composers claim to have designed the software for their pieces so that they are interactive – so that as musicians, they don’t know exactly when and where what sounds will fall. In this dynamic of uncertainty, they presumably hope to capture something of the thrill of improvised music. While they may have experienced this tension staring at their computer monitors, if it was palpable at all, it was mostly lost on the audience, which couldn’t really tell what was pre-recorded and what was being “played” or manipulated in real time.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 12, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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