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Two Contemporary Composers Make Meaning in the Space Around Their Music

October 22, 2019

It was hard to look away from these wizards at their apparatuses. Sunday night, Oct. 20, was a double album-release concert to celebrate Sarah Belle Reid’s debut recording Underneath and Sonder and Carolina Eyck’s Elegies for Theremin & Voice, organized by Equal Sound. Reid, especially with her double trumpet, exuded focus as her whispers and spits were multiplied around the room. Her miked trumpet hid her face, leaving us to make the mind-bending visual connection between her lungs and diaphragm hard at work, and this hypnotizing soundscape spiraling around us.

The two are very different composers. Reid is an improviser working with noise and live processing, and Eyck’s pieces are graceful looped creations that draw from pop and jazz. Regardless of their differing styles, both are similar in that they’ve constructed these self-sufficient systems in which to produce an expansive, complete set of sounds. Eyck augments her vocals and theremin through more translucent methods — loop pedal and a host of effects — while Reid’s magic transfigures her sounds through the opaquer processes of the computer program Max. While one method may be easier to sonically understand than the other, both these women have constructed around themselves a kind of prosthesis of air — an artificial limb that allows them to extend their musical minds in the moment beyond what would be physically possible for them to produce on their own.

Reid identifies as an improviser first and foremost, but, as she explained to me between sets, she considers the work she performed at the concert — and also that on her album — as highly composed. She programs specific processes to be applied to the sounds that she makes through the trumpet, and it is that detailed program, along with motivic ideas and form, that becomes the composition.

Reid’s sound palette ranged from pit-full-of-centipedes to silk-falling-through-space. With the careful deployment of delay and synthesized sound, she was able to spin out percussive pads that often fell metrically into a danceable groove. Her chaotic sections were never overwhelming. In fact, the most graceful passage was one in which she manipulated a storm of statics and wails through a Sensel Morph interface — a programmable pressure and touch sensitive pad. She fed this mixture calm vocals, encapsulating the balance between deliberate and flighty that I heard throughout her whole set. 

Thereminist and singer Eyck made the element of magic inescapable — even when not playing the theremin, her hands seemed to conjure her voice. Eyck is a very fluid-bodied performer, in contrast to Reid’s strong state of focus, and has fully integrated the fact that her instrument literally produces pitch in reaction to the presence and movement of her body.

Dedicated to a college friend who passed a few years ago, the sadness in Eyck’s album Elegies is thoughtful and soft. Though somewhat repetitive in form — her use of looping limits her to chaconne-like tunes — each piece had its own flavor of pensive, different kinds of rainfall. I was particularly drawn to her wandering theremin basslines, pitch that texture-less and low becomes hard to grasp, and yet the movement continues. Unsettling, especially paired with her chorused, fairy voice.

The theremin is an incredibly endearing instrument. It takes some time to stop hearing its unique slipperiness as an obstacle and to start hearing the slight warbles and slides in pitch as its signature. This is not to suggest that Eyck did not have full command of the instrument; there are simply no sharp edges possible in the sound. Floating is both the visual reality of pitches produced by a theremin, as well as the sonic quality, the magic and ethereality of which Eyck embraces in the tenor of the music she makes.

Though this concert was, in a way, meant to advertise the new albums, Reid and Eyck were a very fortunate pairing. Two masters in the worlds they’ve made, it was a distinct pleasure to watch them weave music in their electronically enchanted air.

Tamzin Elliott is a composer and writer based in Los Angeles, and a doctoral student at University of Southern California.