Music from SEAMUS, vol. 30 continues the organization's series of recordings chronicling the work of its member composers. Featuring music by Christopher Biggs, Elizabeth Hoffman, Joo Won Park, Julie Herndon, Mei-Ling Lee, Jiayue Cecilia Wu, Kelley Sheehan, Heather Stebbins, and Lyn Goeringer, this recording provides excellent insight into vanguard practices in electronic and electro-acoustic music.
|Keith Kirchoff, piano, Christopher Biggs, electronics
|Elizabeth Hoffman, electronics
|Func Step Mode
Func Step Mode
|Joo Won Park, electronics
|A Long Postlude
A Long Postlude
|Mei-Ling Lee, electronics
|Jiayue Cecilia Wu, voice, field recording, and electronics, Lucina Yue, konghou
|Daniel Fawcett, no input mixer, Francis Favis, percussion, Joanna Chen, percussion
|things that follow
things that follow
|Adam Vidiksis, percussion, Heather Stebbins, electronics
|Lyn Goeringer, electronics
SEAMUS, the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States, has been supporting this wildly diverse craft for almost four decades. Part of that support comes as conferences that bring composers and performers together; another part is the SEAMUS record imprint, frequently publishing electronic music of all styles and approaches.
Christopher Biggs unleashes Monstress with wide sweeping gestures, underlined with the sound of a crackling fire. It brings with it an atmosphere full of suspense, holding us in a persistent state of foreboding. Delicate jangles and pops float freely in the electronics, giving the sense that the piece is a large, resonant landscape, with plenty of room for the piano’s transits between heavy two-fisted chords and more airborne passagework. The intensity builds as the Monstress comes to life, nearer and nearer... A nicely turned coda brings quieter memories of the action, a soft afterimage.
Elizabeth Hoffman’s clouds pattern emerges into a smooth, porous space, with no hard edges, no stable landmarks. These clouds are made of mercury and Damascus steel - dark, agile, with complex patternings. Their unpredictable paths change moment-to-moment; are they alive? As the piece progresses it takes on a more urgent cast, with more intensity and more timbral differentiation, more edges. Tiny percussive sounds are embedded just below the surface. Further along, the sounds become hollowed-out, thinner, more fleeting. When it ends, it is as if the space itself has disappeared.Read More
What kind of music do computers make for their own entertainment? It might be something like Joo Won Park’s remarkable Func Step Mode. In a hot, intense claustrophobia, fast-moving beats endlessly repeat, streaming like information down a fiber-optic wire. Or like a waterfall, if a jackhammer thought about a waterfall. A heartbeat is somehow caught up in the tumult, falling into the same tireless, syncopated Matrix. The full-contact rhythmicity of these beating, buzzing electronic sounds may be just the post-human peptalk you were looking for.
Julie Herndon’s A Long Postlude, for solo performer with electronics and light bulbs, has the air of a ritual. Its pacing feels stately and serious, alternating between recitation (documentation of the photophone, an Alexander Graham Bell invention that used sunlight to wirelessly transmit sound), and Mormon prophecies about light. Herndon’s voice intones the texts calmly, but the words are obscured by the humming haze emitted by the chorus of lightbulbs. The prophecies are wrapped in the voluminous tones of an electric organ. Perhaps we are not ready to receive this knowledge; we are not yet able to understand it fully. But we know it exists, intangible yet present.
Mei-Ling Lee’s Giant Dipper is on the surface about a wooden roller coaster in Santa Cruz, California, but it cuts much deeper. Lee opens a door directly onto dream space, a field recording of an amusement park infiltrated by slithering ribbons of synthetic sound and unfamiliar resonances. Amid the gleeful shrieks from the roller coaster, the denatured voice of a child calls out. Lee gives her sounds room to breathe, setting episodes apart with meaningful silence. The recurrence and repetition of a child’s songs and chants, counterpointed by ingenious textures of field recordings and electronic sounds, is unexpectedly moving. By smoothing the space between reality and dream, Lee takes us to the uncanny valley of memory.
Jiayue Cecilia Wu also makes use of field recordings in For Tashi, but her source of inspiration is a heartbreaking trauma. The first section starts as a street scene with jangly Tibetan bells and low drums. Human voices are transformed into proto-electronic chants, a wailing that dissolves into the unhuman. The music of this section is noisy, many-layered; a nightmarish landscape of grief. The second half of the piece is mostly dominated by the magnificent sound of the Konghou, an ancient Chinese harp. Birdsong, a baby’s voice, and the Konghou imply a great transformation has taken place, but dark flashes of the past still visit. To me the division between the first and second parts is something like an emotional line incised between Before and After. Nothing can ever be the same.
Talk Circus by Kelley Sheehan, for two percussionists and no-input mixer, opens with a high-spirited assault of cymbals, alert and bright. The no-input mixer is a bit of a magic trick, whereby a wide range of noise and feedback are summoned from the mixer itself, like ghosts in a machine. Enhanced by the connection of contact mics from the percussion instruments, Sheehan has a wide-ranging palette to play with. And it definitely sounds like play - deliciously low-res, in-your-face, an exuberant choreography of old motorcycles, blown amps, and metal banging against metal.
things that follow by Heather Stebbins explores the ebb and flow of anxiety and pressure around severe or intense experiences. It begins as a roiling sea of low drums, harassed by threatening, somehow vocalic gestures. Electronic sounds multiply and grow more insistent. You can hear the pressure in the grinding, creaking sounds of systems pushed past their limit, of large objects pushing hard against each other. Resonant whines emerge from the tumult, heralding a coming release. With them comes a space of breathing room, but it is temporary. The cycle begins again, with thunder sheets and cymbals, and then close-miked small objects. Stebbins has not only thoughtfully portrayed the feeling of intense personal experience, she has also given us a meditation on the transitory nature of experience itself.
Lyn Goeringer’s hypnotic waterside begins very simply: a texture that brings to mind small marbles bouncing and rolling around. Very gradually, an ecosystem of sound grows up around it. Quiet, delicately-shaded voices emerge and pass through. The marble sounds evolve along the way. The music is hovering and delicate, a membranous tissue of sound. Profoundly contemplative and understated, the work is like nothing else on this SEAMUS disc.
– Kyle Bartlett
Produced by SEAMUS
Mastered by Scott L. Miller
Graphic design by Allison Wilder
Christopher Biggs is a composer and multimedia artist whose “original and unique musical language” blends dense, contrapuntal textures with direct, visceral expression. His music presents a “masterful combination between acoustic instruments and electronics” (Avant Scena), and has been described as “heartbreakingly beautiful” (Classical Music Review), and a “sonic foodfight” (Jazz Weekly). His recent projects focus on integrating live instrumental performance with interactive audiovisual media.
Elizabeth Hoffman composes electroacoustic music (including multi-channel sound) and acoustic music. She is particularly interested in music that exists in a liminal space between explicit notation and implicit freedom amidst contextual cues with attention to tuning, timbre, and micro-temporal detail. Her publications include topics of narrative viewpoint in electroacoustic music and spatialization as interpretation. Recent research includes a focus on relationships between gender and approaches to designing and using technology. She teaches in the Department of Music, Faculty of Arts and Science, at New York University. She has received recognition from Bourges and Prix Ars Electronica, International Computer Music Association, and the American Composers Forum organizations, and is a MacDowell and NEA recipient.
Joo Won Park (b. 1980) is an Assistant Professor of Music Technology at the Wayne State University. He studied at Berklee College of Music (B.M.) and University of Florida (M.M. and Ph.D.) and has previously taught in Oberlin Conservatory, Temple University, Rutgers University Camden, and Community College of Philadelphia. Dr. Park's music and writings are available on MIT Press, Parma Recordings, ICMC, Spectrum Press, Visceral Media, SEAMUS, and No Remixes labels. He is the recipient of Knight Arts Challenge Detroit (2019) and the Kresge Arts Fellowship (2020). He also directs the Electronic Music Ensem- ble of Wayne State (EMEWS).
Julie Herndon is an intermedia composer and performer. Her work explores the body’s relationship to the self, to performance, and to tools like musical instruments and personal technology.
Taiwanese-born composer Mei-Ling Lee’s work integrates contemporary western music with traditional Chinese culture. Her work regularly draws inspirations from western and Chinese poetry. She received her Ph.D. degree in Composition with supporting area in Intermedia Music Technology from the University of Oregon. At the University of Oregon she studied under Dr. Jeffrey Stolet, Dr. Robert Kyr, and Dr. David Crumb. Her work has been performed internationally and throughout the United States. Awards include First Prize at the Third International Competition of DTKV, Germany, and commissions for the Composers Symposium of the Oregon Bach Festival. Mei-Ling is currently an instructor of music technology at Lane Community College, Eugene, Oregon.
Jiayue Cecilia Wu (b. 1978) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado's College of Arts and Media. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Design and Engineering in 2000. In 2013, she obtained her Master of Arts degree in Music from Stanford University. In 2018, she obtained her Ph.D. in Media Arts and Technology from UC Santa Barbara. As a musician, Dr. Wu's work has been published by Organised Sound, ICMC, SEAMUS, NIME, EMI Records, SONY, Warner Music, Universal Music Group, and many music labels around the world. As a multimedia artist, she received the “Young Alumni Artist Grant Award” from Stanford University. As a scholar, she has received research awards from AES, the University of California, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. She is also the chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at AES and the Editor-in-Chief of the SEAMUS newsletter.
Kelley Sheehan (1989) is composer and computer musician moving between acoustic, electro-acoustic, and performance art works. In any medium, her work centers on noise, performance, and interaction. Her work has been described as "Full of discovery, collaboration, and unpredictability" (Iannotta, Kyriakides, & Stäbler for the Gaudeamus Foundation) with "Woozy Electronics" (LA Weekly). Currently a finalist for the Christoph Delz Competition, she is also the recipient of the Gaudeamus Award 2019 and the 1st place prize winner of the ASCAP/Seamus Award 2020. She has been awarded fellowships at Bang on a Can Festival, the 2019 National Composers Intensive with LA Philharmonic and the International Contemporary Ensemble, 2020 Commissioning Prize winner for [~Switch Ensemble], Composition Fellow at Nief Norf & at Banff, among others. She has presented works at conferences such as New Music Gathering and series such as Omaha Under the Radar's Generator Series.
Heather Stebbins (b. 1987) is a composer, technologist, synthesist, and educator based in Washington, DC, where she is an Assistant Professor of Electronic and Computer Music at George Washington University. She works with sounds created by instruments, found objects, nature, and voltage to generate musical experiences ranging from notated works for chamber ensembles to improvised performances on modular synthesizers. In all of her work, Stebbins strives to create sound worlds that are kinetic, resonant, and provoking.
Stebbins has worked with ensembles such as the loadbang ensemble, Yarn/Wire, Switch~, Ensemble U:, the JACK Quartet, Sound Icon, Transient Canvas, eighth blackbird, and the Riot Ensemble. She has worked with soloists Ning Yu, Andy Kozar, Carlos Cordeiro, Adam Vidiksis, and Sam Kelder to create highly personal pieces for solo instrument and electronics.
Recordings of Stebbins’ acoustic and electroacoustic works have been released on New Focus Recordings, Superpang, SEAMUS, Not Art Records, and Coviello. She has released two solo albums of synthesizer- generated electronic music on Zeromoon, a DC-based label of Intelligent Noise Music of the non-entertainment genre. She is an active performer in the Washington, D.C. area experimental electronic music scene.
Stebbins studied primarily with Benjamin Broening and Joshua Fin berg. She was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Estonia with composer Helena Tulve.http://heatherstebbins.com
Drawing on critical theory, sound studies, and emergent media, Lyn Goeringer’s work focuses on how we are impacted by power, and in particular, how power influences our relationship to space and place in the larger context of the Everyday. Her compositional interest is one of allegory which seeks to outline and illustrate spatial power dynamics. Our bodies are the site where we engage with power within a complex theater of rules and social expectations. For this reason, her works often include literal physical components such as instruments that rely on movement and gesture in performance, or site specific installations that invite the visitor to move through them in order to experience their entire soundscape. Phenomenologically, space and place are made concrete through by visible elements. In her work, she uses light and video to demarcate the visual cues of the physical world that she is exploring, using it as a way to guide the audience towards the meaning within an abstract world of sound.
A stunning ensemble in the area of electroacoustic music, SEAMUS (Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States) brings a wealth of talent to compositions that are vastly different from each other while still retaining a keen attention to detail and exciting songwriting dynamics.
“Monstress”, by Christopher Briggs, starts the listen with firm, unpredictable piano as plenty of mysterious atmosphere complements the 10+ minutes of calm, twinkling moments as well as the bold experimental ideas, and “Clouds Pattern” follows with an ominous quality as low buzzing and sound manipulation mesmerize the listener thanks to Elizabeth Hoffman’s vision.
Near the middle, Julie Herndon’s “A Long Postlude” brings spoken word that actually pairs with a lightbulb used as an instrument, and, later on, processed vocals, while “Giant Dipper” mashes samples of the sounds of a boardwalk in Santa Cruz with a young child amid plenty of unique electronic texturing from Mei-Ling Lee’s mind.
Further yet, Kelley Sheehan’s “Talk Circus” combines 2 percussionists and electronics in a way that sounds like a machine in its remarkable delivery, and “Waterside”, by Lyn Goeringer, flows and ebbs like water in its reflective, soothing tone.
Much like everything on the New Focus label, Music From SEAMUS, Vol. 30 bridges organic and synthetic exploration in very fascinating, even perplexing, avenues, that showcase immense skill you’re not going to hear anywhere else.
— Tom Haugen, 6.08.2021
The ultra-modern offerings of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States have been offered as recordings for even longer than has Cooman’s organ music – and SEAMUS’ composers and compositions remain as divisive and polarizing as ever. The 30th volume of these pieces, issued by New Focus Recordings, includes nine works created between 2018 and 2021, and their provenance, sound and intentions are about as far as can be imagined from those of Cooman’s organ music of the same time frame. It is fair to suggest that only listeners who are very, very well-versed in the electro-acoustic world will be able to distinguish among these composers and these works based on the titles and/or sounds. Christopher Biggs’ Monstress (2019) for piano and electronics is based on comic books. Elizabeth Hoffman’s clouds pattern (2021) explores computerized acoustic production and modification. Joo Won Park’s Func Step Mode (2019) is an extended, aurally painful set of feedback rhythms and dripping-water perceptions. Julie Herndon’s A Long Postlude (2018) combines text about Alexander Graham Bell with Mormon prophecies, all mixed with considerable vocal processing. Mei-ling Lee’s Giant Dipper (2019) melds roller-coaster sounds and the voice of an eight-year-old girl in such a way as to complicate, through electronics, a forthrightly joyful experience of youth. Jiayue Cecilia Wu’s For Tashi (2019) attempts to explore coping with miscarriage through a combination of outdoor sounds, human voices and pure electronics, with everything modified and intermingled. Kelley Sheehan’s Talk Circus (2018) uses two percussionists as the basis for electronics that are drawn directly from the percussion instruments through the use of contact microphones. Heather Stebbins’ things that follow (2018), also for percussion and electronics, mixes sounds in ways that begin with intensity and end with greater lightness, if not levity. And Lyn Goeringer’s waterside (2020) proffers comparative calm through ebbing and flowing liquid-like sounds. All these works are determinedly intellectual exercises, even though some – notably Wu’s – flow from highly emotional circumstances. For all the near-infinite variety of available electronic sounds and electronic modifications of acoustic ones, the pieces have a sameness about them that makes it very difficult, except perhaps for the cognoscenti, to hear the relationships between the works’ titles and intents, on the one hand, and their sonic world, on the other. This is not music that reaches out beyond a core group already committed to its standards and practices: the techniques of specific pieces differ considerably, but their overall effect does so to only a small degree.
SEAMUS is the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States. It was founded in 1984, and is a non-profit organization of composers, performers, and teachers, working in many styles of music, but all having one thing in common: the use of electronic technology. In addition to its conferences, it publishes a journal, and it encourages its members to create new works. Previous winners of the “SEAMUS Award,” an annual recognition of contributors to the field of electro-acoustic music, include Wendy Carlos, Laurie Anderson, and Morton Subotnick. I have reviewed a handful of earlier volumes in previous issues; here is Volume 30. (Volume 29 is reviewed above.) As always, the contents of these volumes are voted upon by the organization’s members.
It is worth nothing that more than half of the composers on this release are women. Is the gender gap narrower in electro-acoustic music, and if so why?
One of the stand-out tracks on this release is Mei-ling Lee’s Giant Dipper, named for the vintage wooden roller-coaster still thrilling visitors to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. It is described as an “interactive electronic music composition,” which means, I think, that Lee manipulates her sound sources in real time. Those sources are the voice of a young girl and field recordings from the Boardwalk itself. As devotees of horror films will tell you, sometimes there is nothing more sinister than the voice of a child. Lee isolates phrases, if you will, from these sources, loops them, warps them, and recombines them, and the results are both nostalgic and uneasy-making. Apart from that, the rollercoaster quietly percolates under the surface, until it breaks forth to make an unholy leviathan din. Jiayue Cecilia Wu’s piece, For Tashi, also uses field recordings (and also the konghou, an ancient Asian harp) to create an even more disquieting soundscape. Tashi was Wu’s baby, lost in a miscarriage, and we read, “The composer hopes to bring attention to the importance of women’s prenatal and mental care, as well as the support and assistance needed by survivors of pregnancy loss and their families.” Talk Circus, by Kelley Sheehan, has no subtext, apparently, but it grips the listener through the thrilling violence of its sounds. We read, “using percussive instruments, contact microphones, and a no-input mixer (NiPM), a new sound world, or ‘machine’ emerges.” Sheehan, still a student when she composed this work, won a special prize from SEAMUS for it, and it is fascinating to hear. Good work, Kelley!
Joo Won Park’s Large Intestine was a highlight of Volume 24. (In it, Park, imagines himself to be a taco en route through a digestive tract.) Now, in Func Step Mode (no-input mixer and drum machine), Park might be asking “what kind of music do computers make for their own entertainment?” Func Step Mode seems to synthesize every electronic alarm that ever existed and deluges the listener with them in a perpetuum mobile of thudding and shrieking. Not for the nervous, then, but I’ll grant that it communicates a manic joy.
Every SEAMUS release has its own personality. Volume 30’s personality, overall, is brutal and confrontational. One is tempted to attribute that to the pandemic and to the political and social unrest we have been experiencing in the United States, although most of these pieces were composed in 2018 and 2019. Well, why shouldn’t composers be able to see into the future? Other artists do.
This is not what many people would call “music,” so call it organized sound if you prefer. Calling it that lessens neither the intrinsic value of the work nor its capacity to stimulate an open-minded listener in multiple ways. We’ve come a long way from Gershon Kingley’s Hot Butter Popcorn, thank God. To crib from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, the classic body horror science fiction film from 1983, long live the new flesh.
— Raymond Tuttle, 12.15.2021