The festival’s other big musical attraction, a five-part series entitled Electronic Evolution, seemed more like a random sampler than a focused survey of how technology has affected the composition and performance of music over the past half-century. The individual concerts all contained much music of value, but only the big retrospective at Columbia University managed to put this important and complex trend into a useful or instructive context.
In the opening concert, Reinbert de Leeuw and his sterling Asko/Schönberg Ensembles gave a breathtaking performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine. This is an impressive score, even to ears normally allergic to the composer’s characteristic blend of birdsong and Catholic mysticism, but the mere presence of a wailing Ondes Martinot in the orchestra hardly makes it a major landmark in electronic music. At least Messiaen wrote music of substance, which is more than can be said for Ron Ford, whose Salome Fast (1996) gives that naughty New Testament teenager the full electronic treatment but only succeeds in turning her into a frantic Looney Tunes cartoon. The third item on this oddly assorted program was a legendary oldie from 1954: Edgard Varèse’s Déserts, a pioneering score for chamber orchestra and electronic taped interludes that has not aged well. Forty years ago, when I first heard it under the composer’s direction, a bewildered audience seemed unsure whether to snicker or protest such avant-garde weirdness. Today the bleeps, bloops, and blats just sound quaint.
Four years later, though, for the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, Varèse finally found the technical means to realize the all-electronic masterpiece that had probably been in his head for decades: Poème Électronique. That amazing piece of organized sound – which must have made an extraordinary effect when first heard, distributed over 400 loudspeakers – appropriately opened a generous program of multichannel-tape music in the Low Library rotunda at Columbia University. The event reminded me of what an exciting place Columbia was for a composition student in the early sixties. In those days the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center was being outfitted with what were then state-of-the-art facilities, and the lively concerts organized by Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening in the old Miller Theater at Columbia could always be counted on to generate heated arguments.
Before the formal program got under way, those who wished could peruse a fascinating exhibition of photographs and illustrations showing the composers at work, the equipment they used, and the technical procedures that they were developing at the time. The Ampex tape recorders and other machinery on display have already taken on the patina of ancient musical history, period instruments as authentic as the Baroque lute or viola da gamba. Also available for inspection were interactive installations to demonstrate present and future possibilities for electronic music, along with audiovisual introductions and visual mapping analyses of the pieces on the program. And all six selections were choice, major works, from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s seamless fusion of the human voice and electronically generated sound (Gesang der Jünglinge, 1956) to Paul Lansky’s uncanny transformation of speeding autos on a four-lane highway into an eerie bit of Mahlerian poetry (Night Traffic, 1990). Here, at least, was a genuine festival event.