Wet Ink Trio Blurs Boundaries in Oberlin

Wet Ink Trio blurred the lines between composition and performance and music and noise in a dynamic concert at Oberlin Conservatory’s Stull Recital Hall on February 12, 2016. The trio, a recently formed subset of the Wet Ink composer-performer collective, employs a collaborative model to develop new works. These compositions incorporate a variety of materials and techniques from classical, improvisational jazz, and experimental electronic music. In this performance, Eric Wubbels (piano), Josh Modney (violin), and Sam Pluta (electronics) played two works that boldly showcased the Wet Ink aesthetic.

Wubbels developed the children of fire come looking for fire (2012) for prepared piano and electrified violin in collaboration with Modney. The piece, played from memory, was as exciting to watch as it was to hear. Modney employed many classical virtuosic techniques to unusual sonic effect. A brief, startling attack on prepared notes at the top and bottom of the keyboard set the opening parameters for Modney, who bowed a long extended single note, with only light left hand pressure on the strings. Wubbels responded with intermittent bursts of notes, as Modney mixed melodic phrases with twangy, left-hand pizzicatos and obsessive tapping on the wood of his violin.

A second section begins with a “pizz-plunk” duet that rides above a folk tune from a Brahms piano sonata. This gives way to a melodic phrase on the violin, punctuated by percussive strokes on muted piano strings. In the final section, Modney detuned his violin while playing an elegiac interlude as Wubbels answered with rhythmic cells of staccato notes on the piano. At the end, the music turns almost bombastic until a hazy decrescendo slows to a solemn close.

Sam Pluta’s Hydra (2014) was developed with Modney and Wubbels to provide more material for touring. Pluta’s electronics add a vast landscape of sonic possibilities. In Hydra, he mixes live-processing of sounds from the piano and violin with pre-recorded sounds on his laptop computer using Supercollider sound management software. Pluta’s instrument is a Snyderphonics Manta finger pad that is hyper-sensitive to touch, allowing him fine-grained control of sonic material, volume, pitch-shifting, and rhythmic patterns. While Wubbels and Modney played from a fully-notated score, the patterns of sounds Pluta projected electronically were improvised.

Hydra began with a brief statement on the violin by Modney that Pluta then repeatedly transformed and adorned with added material and sent careening across the stage. Wubbel’s rhapsodic piano solo spawned an ecstatic dream-state fantasy from the electronics. In the finale, Modney returned to the earlier sections of his part to selectively sample bits and pieces in a call-and-response duet with Pluta over a flight of fancy on the piano.

Composer and sound artist Sarah Snider (photo: Live from Studio B)

Composer and sound artist Sarah Snider (photo: Live from Studio B)

Opening for Hydra was composer and sound artist Sarah Snider, an Oberlin double degree student in TIMARA (technology in music and related arts) and studio art. In its 16-year run, Wet Ink has inspired many emerging younger artists. Snider is one of these, having studied composition with Pluta for five summers at the Walden School in New Hampshire. Using a position- and pressure-sensitive drawing tablet as her interface to a Max patch on her laptop, she unleashed a barrage of sonic colors and textures in her solo electronic set. Snider intermixed recorded and synthesized sounds to evoke a dystopian universe with a repeated, heavily-distorted synthesized text: “the patriarchy is living hell.” More than something to simply hear, Snider’s performance was an enveloping experience, like passing through Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, without having to drop the mescaline. The pupil did the teacher proud.