Dancing lamps, a tortured piano: Illuminating objects and heavy concepts at the MATA Festival

MATA Festival artistic director Du Yun, telling the audience how she and the other directors had received 1000 submissions for this year’s week-long new music festival, went on to say that the chosen works couldn’t just “look cool—they must sound cool, too.” The five works presented at the third night of the Festival, titled “Mad Filaments and Ungovernable Shoots,” hinged on visual and extra-musical concepts, yet all managed to enshroud the audience in sound worlds that felt not just “cool” but new, even gutsy. From the crackling and clicking of lamps outfitted with tactical transducers to the meditative thunder of coils and magnets, the evening reverberated with the ideas of seven young composers who have reconsidered not only the ways in which sounds can be heard and thought about, but even the ways in which they can be produced.

Serbian composer Jasna Veličković did this most convincingly with her composition sUn (2014), which she composed for and performed on her own instrument, the velicon. The other four compositions featured during “Mad Filaments and Ungovernable Shoots” call things into question (resumes, household objects, video footage, even performers and instruments themselves), but sUn diverges from this theme by stripping down electronic music to its roots: magnets and coils. Using the velicon, a custom-designed magnetic interface consisting of permanent magnets in the form of spinning metal balls and vibrating coils, Veličković explains rather than queries: her instrument and piece are described as a means “to better understand the ways that magnetic fields alter sound waves.”


Jasna Veličković

Standing in front of a small waist-high table that looked like it would be found in a physics lab rather than a concert venue, Veličković fashioned rays and forcefields of sound using her dexterous thumbs (she must be really good at texting). As she spun the metal balls and rearranged them and other objects, including a Canadian coin, across the surface of the velicon, the sounds pulsated around us in atmospheric clouds and clangors until she pushed and scattered them mercilessly across the surface, effectively ending the piece. The final descent into sonic mayhem was visually reminiscent of a child who has gotten frustrated with an intense game, and only after exhausting her concentration to its breaking point does she give up in a fit of frenzy. Despite this slightly off-putting ending, the piece was shockingly apt at conveying its intentions (“a mathematical understanding of…signal united with noise”), portraying not just the range in electronic sounds but giving an understanding of how these sounds are made.

The program had started with a very different sort of performance, as mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer gave voice to Mirela Ivičević’s mockery of the artist bio, Orgy of References (2012). The ironic piece began with a ventriloquistic series of “uhs” from the theatrical and smoky-voiced Fischer, who eventually dived into an operatic recitation of Ivičević’s own resume, complete with a self-referential “among uh-thers” at the end of a long list of ensembles and collaborators, and periodically interrupted by an invisible cascade of recorded sounds and music ranging from the cacophonous to the dreamy. Ivičević’s piece is meant to point a finger at the futility of a “composer bio” as a presentation of an artist in written form and how the emphasis then lands on the words rather than the music, and the piece raised questions not only about self-representation but about performativity in more general terms.

Music for Lamps-- Photo by Fredrik Gran

Music for Lamps– Photo by Fredrik Gran

Ivičević’s reevaluation of the resume was followed by a reevaluation of a household object with Music for Lamps (2012-2015). Adam Basanta, Julian Stein, and Max Stein are three sound artists who have fashioned a structured improvisation/installation in which they maneuver laptops while sitting in a sea of twelve lamps fitted up with tactical transducers. The flickering, crackling lights and sounds are trippy yet meditative as the lamps dance to the beat of their own audio-resonant heartbeat: when all the lights shone bright, they emitted a monstrous drone, while at other times they clicked in and out and off and on. Norwegian composer Bjørn Erik Haugen, also interested in ways of converting the visual into the sonic and vice versa, came next in the program with Summon (2013), in which footage from the Gulf War has been converted and manipulated into patterns of images and sounds. The footage-turned-into-sounds was matched by a video projection of these same sounds repurposed into flickering black-and-white bars. As the sonic static intensified, the visual static sped up, so that once again we observed a union of sonic and visual trajectories rather than a cause-and-effect of one being influenced or predetermined by the other.

Like Jasna Veličković, Megan Grace Beugger had devised a contraption for her composition Liaison (2013), the last piece on the program, which was written for dancer and bowed piano. Nylon fishing line was draped over and through the piano, which dancer Melanie Aceto harnessed her ankles and wrists to with velcro straps ripping across a darkened silence. In contrast with the disembodied sounds of Orgy of References and Summon, as well as with the composer-performer control of Music for Lamps and sUn, Beugger’s piece explores sounds produced by a non-musician in an abstract meditation on torture. Aceto’s bowing and swaying movements were sometimes met with silence or soft scraping sounds, sometimes shrill metallic sobs as if the piano were being ripped apart from the inside out, as the strings were pulled in different directions along the piano. For a pianist like myself, it was sometimes painful to hear and see as Aceto-as-prisoner strained against her shackles, pulling them totally taut and clutching herself as the fishing line struggled in excruciating heaves and scrapes. Finally Aceto bound herself to the piano in a dramatic and acrobatic display as the captive joined with the captor.

Although I am usually wary of works that are too reliant on the conveyance of “concepts” in their intentionality, rather than the perceptual experience itself, this evening of works proved for the most part to be effective both conceptually and perceptually. The compositions looked cool, sounded cool, and asked good questions.