The Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States: Music from SEAMUS, vol. 28


SEAMUS (Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States) continues with its commendable series of releasing recordings of works by its member composers. This volume is the most recent, the result of balloting by attendees at the SEAMUS 2018 National Conference, hosted at The University of Oregon, in Eugene, Oregon. It is produced and remastered by SEAMUS Director of Recordings, Scott Miller.


SEAMUS (Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States) releases its 28th volume of works by its member composers, representing the newest trends and ideas in electroacoustic music, and using instruments as traditional as the saxophone and as obscure as candles and Nintendo Wii remotes alongside all manner of electronic sounds.

The title of Kyong Mee Choi’s Train of Thoughts is a clever play on words: the piece was inspired by the experience of being on a train where one hears myriad different sounds as the train moves through different environments. Choi abstracts this concept to portray how our mind literally goes on trains of thought. To this effect, the piece begins with a train whistle and the deep, rumbling sound of a train moving along its tracks. From here, we hear banal ambient sounds: zipping luggage, pouring water, atonal-Muzak vibraphone, crunching potato chips. From this ho-hum state of mind, we enter a dark, brooding tunnel, as the sounds become more abstracted with the lone, quiet, and lightly persistent interruption of a train whistle reminding us of the physical world. We briefly exit the tunnel hearing the same unzipping and water-pouring sounds from before, before re-entering in a more frantic state of mind. The piece ends in mental stasis.

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Brian Topp’s Ljós is inspired by a set of poems, “Light” by Souvankham Thammavongsa, depicting various interpretations of light. While the piece doesn’t have a direct connection to the poems, Topp often found himself reading the poems during the composition process for inspiration. The piece opens with dramatic, glitchy gestures in the electronics with the saxophone wailing above, then imitating these gestures through use of repeated notes and the extreme low register of the instrument. The texture alternates between thinned out passages for saxophone alone and sections with electronics. Much of the work portrays an imitative relationship between the soprano saxophone, played by Justin Massey, and electronic elements gathered through an extensive vocal improvisation with vocalist/composer Katerina Gimon.

Akiko Hatakeyama’s ち — chi is a live, interactive performance piece. A homemade instrument called a myaku senses the luminescence of candles placed on a surface, which controls the amplitude of unique sound files. The performer thus creates the piece, both sonically and visually, by lighting, moving and blowing out the candles. All aspects of the candle, from the thickness, length, and candleholder, affect the sound quality. The performer is also inevitably influenced by the melting wax, smoke, and intensity of light from the burning candles during the performance. No doubt the performers own personal and cultural associations with candles also shapes the atmosphere. The piece is undergirded with a steady, slightly pulsing drone triggered through the movement of candles, while voice and other sparse electronic sounds come and go throughout.

Robert McClure’s in excess is a reflection on the absurd amount of waste humans produce everyday, especially the cynical overuse of plastic packaging to create a sense of luxury for the consumer. The sound of plastic packaging forms most of the sonic material used in the piece, along with balloons simulating the sound of oboe multiphonics.

Using Nintendo Wii Remotes to trigger her electronics, Chi Wang’s Peony Garden in inspired by the Chinese traditional Kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu. Using percussive electronic sounds, the work evolves through a steady growth of density in the electronics, before introducing recorded and processed voices from the original opera, creating in her words, “a reimagined restructuring of the essential elements of the original Kunqu opera.”

“As with many things in this world, however, the beautiful and the grotesque often inhabit the same spaces.” In his notes for In His Hands, Lucas Marshall Smith reflects on the growth and normalization of hateful rhetoric as a persuasive tool. He processes his feelings on it through the lens of his upbringing in the Baptist church and the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric he was first exposed to there. Quoting from Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and select passages from the Bible, Smith uses his own voice to deliver these imposing messages. Juxtaposed against the opening and closing passages where Smith sings religious hymns in harmony with himself, the two powerful statements on religion stand in unresolved contrast to each other, mirroring the constant ebb and flow of how such powerful ideas are at all times used for both good and evil, for both condemning and redeeming.

Fang Wan’s Origin is an interactive piece based on recordings of traditional Chinese percussion instruments. Composed using the Kyma platform, the work explores a range of ethereal ambient harmonies and electronic sounds in dialogue with subtle integration of traditional Chinese material. The ethnographic nature of these sounds is not front and center in Origin, instead they are primarily considered as sounds outside of their cultural context. A brief moment of processed Chinese spoken text is the exception to this rule however, as the immediacy of hearing a human voice speaking linguistic fragments is too powerful to avoid conjuring images of the context from which they spring.

Caroline Louise Miller’s Subsong directly references “sub song”, which is the practice of young birds singing snippets of their songs to themselves as improvisations or experiments. It also indirectly references subwoofers, which feature prominently in the piece, and hints at the subterranean workings of the electronics. Many of the sounds used are sampled from recordings Miller made in a cement cube, mixing these heavily reverberant sounds with bass-driven electronics sounds commonly heard in hip-hop. By also using studio techniques to digitally interrupt and create glitchy sounds, we are keenly aware of both the human and machine elements fused in this piece.

– N. Beckmann

  • Produced by SEAMUS
  • Remastered by Scott L. Miller
  • Graphic design by Alison Wilder

Kyong Mee Choi

Kyong Mee Choi, composer, organist, painter, poet, and visual artist, received several presti- gious awards and grants including John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, Robert Helps Prize, Aaron Copland Award, John Donald Robb Musical Trust Fund Commission, Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, First prize of ASCAP/SEAMUS Award, Second prize at VI Concurso Internacional de Música Eletroacústica de São Paulo among others. Her music was published at CIMESP (São Paulo, Brazil), SCI, EMS, ERM media, SEAMUS, and Détonants Voyages (Studio Forum, France). She is the Head of Music Composition at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches composition and electro-acoustic music.

Justin Massey

Canadian saxophonist Justin Massey is an interpreter of contemporary music based in Toronto, Canada. With an obsession of creating new sonorities and textures through the saxophone, Justin searches for obscure and unexplored sounds offered by the instrument and its unparalleled potential to create visceral and emotional music.

Brian Topp

Brian Topp is a Vancouver, Canada based composer, audio designer and programmer. His main interests lie in electronic and electroacoustic music; developing interactive systems for realtime audio processing and creation, and developing new ways to create and interact with music and technology. This has included concerts works, mixed media collaborations, interactive installations, virtual reality and work in the video games industry.

Akiko Hatakeyama

Akiko Hatakeyama is a composer/performer of electroacoustic music and intermedia. She explores the boundaries between written music, improvisation, electronics, real-time com- puter-based interactivity, and visual media. Storytelling, memories, and nature play an important role in Akiko's work, and she most often finds beauty in simplicity.

Robert McClure

Robert McClure’s music attempts to discover beauty in unconventional places using non-traditional means. His work has been featured at festivals including NYCEMF, Beijing Modern Music Festival, ISCM, TIES, SEAMUS, and ICMC. His works may be found through ADJ•ective New Music, Resolute Music Publications, and Tapspace Publications as well as on SEAMUS Records, ABLAZE, and Albany labels. Robert has previously held positions at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and Soochow University in Suzhou, China. He currently serves as Assistant Professor of Composition/Theory and Director of Graduate Studies at Ohio University.

Lucas Marshall Smith

Lucas Marshall Smith is a composer and vocalist from New London, Ohio. Smith’s music endeavors to understand the human experience through the lenses of internal/external cognition, religion/spirituality, and tone/noise relationships.

Fang Wan

Fang Wan is an intermedia composer and performer. Fang’s primary research interests are sound design and interactive composition. Her compositions have been performed internationally including performances in China, the US and the UK, and at major music festi- vals, such as the Kyma International Sound Symposium (KISS), the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS) National Conference, and the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) where, in 2017, she was awarded the top prize for a student composition. Fang received her BA in Electronic music from Xinghai Conservatory of Music and a MM in Intermedia Music Technology from the University of Oregon. She is currently pursuing her D.M.A. degree in the Performance of Data-driven Instruments at the University of Oregon.

Caroline Louise Miller

Caroline Louise Miller’s music explores affect, biomusic, labor, tactility, and glitch. Her latest works intersect with affects of horror and abjection, rising work hours (yet stagnant wages) in late capitalism, and hybridizing popular and electronic art music. In 2014, Caroline spent 2 weeks aboard a research vessel sailing from Taiwan to Palau, collecting field recordings. This project eventually transmuted into a score for a feature-length documentary about life at sea, shot on 16mm film, with artist Lyndsay Bloom. Her music appears across the U.S. and internationally—most recently in the USA, Denmark, Germany, and Australia. C.L.M. is currently based in San Diego, California.



I Care If You Listen

The festival compilation is an album format especially particular to the New Music community; an institution gathers representative pieces from a recurring gathering, highlighting the work they curate. Among these, a prominent US-based compilation is the annual release by the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS). Music from SEAMUS presents an aesthetically representative selection of pieces from their festival—SEAMUS vol 28, released on New Focus Recordings and produced by Scott Miller, includes pieces from their 2018 national conference at the University of Oregon.

It’s an interesting object through which to consider strands of contemporary electronic composition: the format is all audio (which belies the significance of live presentation), the pieces largely comprise a shared aesthetic, and the works scatter across the spectrum of structural success. There is something on this album for everyone, including an opportunity to reflect on the breadth and limits of electro-acoustic composition.

The release opens with Train of Thoughts, a fixed-media track by Kyong Mee Choi. The piece is a beautifully orchestrated display of close listening, deftly arranging train whistles, twinkling bells, ripping samples, and synthesizers. The space created by these sonic combinations is entrancing throughout, but the piece suffers from structural issues as the second half simmers into a relatively placid close.

Formal construction affects a number of pieces on the album. Robert McClure’s in excess falters under the same developmental issues as Choi. His attention to sonic manipulation of sources is assured: samples of strained plastic flit across the stereo field over bristling harmony. Still, the convincing first half gives way to a conclusion that seems to trace a form without truly engaging it. Electro-acoustic composition puts unique primacy on detailed manipulation of sounds themselves, and all three pieces demonstrate mastery in this regard; more formal balance would have made them unquestionable successes.

Brian Topp‘s energetic Ljós for saxophone and electronics faces the inverse problem as Choi’s. The opening blur of augmented instrumental/electronic gestures sounds disjunct and oversaturated with reverb, but brilliantly threads into a satisfying climax. Topp mines the sonic commonalities of sampled voice and live saxophone with careful consideration, and saxophonist Justin Massey assuredly delivers the performance.

The standout of the compilation is Akiko Hatakeyama’sち – chi. A lush drone slowly develops into a bed of tones, supporting Hatakeyama’s mournful vocalizations. This patient soundscape would be satisfying enough, but what truly makes the piece is its performance. The drones are all generated by sensors measuring luminescence of candles that Hatakeyama lights and moves with ritualistic purpose, her voice affecting the jittering flames and thus ensuring constant undulation in the drone. The total affect is a simple, wholly unified, and assured work. Sadly, the visual is not part of SEAMUS’s release and must be found on her website.

This reliance on aural presentation seems to be a limitation of SEAMUS’s assumed format; a later track, Chi Wang’s Peony Garden, also has a significant visual component as Wang manipulates four suspended Wii controllers to advance a fractured adaptation of a traditional Kunqu opera. While Hatakeyama’s piece holds up despite the missing information, the interactivity of Wang’s performance adds a dramatic element absent in the music alone. The chattering voices and desolate chimes engross the listener in the context of a visual performance; otherwise, the sounds grow tiresome.

Lucas Marshall Smith’s In His Hands provides a welcome departure from the homogenous “SEAMUS house style” of previous pieces. Extended vocalizations, hymnody, and menacing electronic growls augment his recitation of an 18th century Jonathan Edwards sermon. Unfortunately, ineffective dramaturgy weakens the piece. Smith’s approach to the desired commentary feels heavy-handed, making little developmental use of the sonic palette at his disposal and leaving no room for reflection. That said, Smith’s approach to composition stands out for its bold theatricality and is a voice (literally) to pay attention to.

The penultimate track, Fang Wan’s Origin, moves back to the brooding synth/sample textures of earlier pieces. Combining Wacom tablet and Kyma software, Origin is a meditative combination of filter drones and percussive hits. More than anything, Origin suffers from track listing; after so many pieces of bell flickers and atmospheric rumbles, Wan’s piece feels lost amidst the compilation and betrays the limits of SEAMUS’s aesthetic reach.

President Ted Coffey acknowledged this constraint at the 2019 awards banquet—hopefully SEAMUS will reconsider how it interfaces with more diverse practices and practitioners. Fortunately, the last track offers a potential glimpse of this direction. Caroline Louise Miller’s Subsong combines many of the album’s familiar sounds—vocalizations, erratic clicks, sampled recordings—and invigorates them with a beat. It’s not a four-to-the-floor banger, but a groove haunts the track in its consistency of time and material. It’s a fresh and direct close to the sampler.

A compilation like Music from SEAMUS does not purport to shatter expectations, but this compilation in particular highlights an (unconsciously?) assumed aesthetic. It demonstrates high abilities of programming, listening, and creative thought, but also inadvertently draws attention to stylistic and compositional limitations. Nevertheless, each composer deserves your attention and their pieces deserve your ears—they display a sophistication that bodes well for electro-acoustic music.

-James May, 10.3.19, I Care If You Listen

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