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Romanticism With an Electroacoustic Twist

August 12, 2019

Sonic Open Orchestra

A clear affinity for lushness and naturalistic jitterings pervaded Sonic Open Orchestra’s Saturday program. Headed by composer and conductor Jason Martin Castillo, SOO is largely a string orchestra, with the occasional percussionist or wind player to serve the chosen repertoire. All works were electroacoustic, the professed thematic grouping, but the similarities went beyond that. Romanticism peeked through each piece, some recognition of light and dark within the natural world, and a certain softening around the edges.

SOO reignited the 1972 piece The Sinking of the Titanic by British composer Gavin Bryars. Bryars’s work is semi-improvised and chance-based, inspired by the story of how the band of musicians on the Titanic, knowing that they would not have room on the boats, continued to play hymns as the ship sank. Bryars’s vision of this event is hypnotizing — he arranged some of those hymns for strings, allowing them to swell up and drift apart from each other, while the iciness of the water is represented in electronic sound.

On paper, the piece seems terrifying, or terrifyingly sad, but I felt only serene interest. The assumed serenity of these doomed musicians, as well as the harmony they strike with the ultimate power of the frozen sea, marks this piece as deeply romantic. Terror certainly lurks under the pious surface of this work, though far off. I thought about the chaotic doom of those working below decks.

SOO’s rendition of The Sinking of the Titanic brought in improvised percussion and bass clarinet, as well as the synth skills and vocals of Sofia Hultquist, also known as Drum & Lace. A composer, producer, and performer, Drum & Lace also performed her work Further, for electronics and string orchestra. She drew inspiration from the Emily Dickinson poem “Further in Summer than the Birds” and field recordings of birdsong. Meant to reflect a day in the life of a bird, the piece felt more like thinking about birds while on a dancefloor that is also in a national park. Each section of the piece was gorgeously sound-designed, moving between what could be a somber reflection on freedom and survival to a more adventurous mood, rushing through brush in twilight. Despite the use of real field recordings (and the sick usage of rhythmic crow calls), there was again this romanticized vision of natural life, a softness and reverence for the reality of harshness.

This paradox applied as well to the evergreen Kaija Saariaho, her piece Petals performed first on the program.  Saariaho’s music is always a graceful combination of depth, force, and effervescence. Cellist Katt Newlan sank her teeth into the work for solo cello and live electronics, with Martin Castillo and Dave Valdez fiddling with endless effects pedals. The trio were somewhat sterile in their concentration, efficiently going through the procedure of the piece. While in contrast with the passion of Saariaho’s writing, the group nevertheless delivered an engaging, living product.

We heard two works by composer Daniel Wohl, Microfluctuations in Plainchant and Formless, both for electronic track and string orchestra. Formless, akin to Petals, was as peaceful as watching a glittering pond in which fish that are too big for comfort circle deep down. Microfluctuations in Plainchant’s first half is gorgeously straightforward, combining mostly unison string playing with bright, electronic microtonal pitches that highlight the tingling harmonies. This was the freshest piece on the program, both pastoral and electrified.

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