08.08.2008

Several weeks ago my lovely girlfriend and I went to a concert in Long Beach. I had received notification of the concert through the LA chapter of the American Composers Forum (of which I’m a member); but when we arrived at the location it almost felt like an underground gathering. It was held at an art gallery that had a stage ringed with red curtains in the back. Plastic folding chairs were set up for the audience, and all manner of interesting folk were there.

The first piece was what (I think) is usually designated “sound art,” where four people made a bunch of noises with different instruments or electronic devices; the noises were picked up by microphones, which ran into sound boards that looped the noises so they would play several times before dying away. Occasionally the noisemakers would adjust various attributes of the sounds as they played, such as the panning (left to right), the delay (echo), etc. It was mildly interesting, but more tiring than interesting, and it seemed to me more like four guys playing around with technology and seeing what they could make their stuff do than artful music, or even artful sound.

The second piece, or rather set of pieces, was the best of the evening: a set of Lou Harrison guitar pieces, played by a musician named John Schneider. But we shall return there in the next post.

The third and final piece (the concert was too informal and not really long enough for an intermission) was some ever-popular Cambodian classical music. It was performed on two marimba-like instruments (except the wooden bars were suspended rather than fixed), two instruments that formed rings around the players and were some other type of pitched percussion, a drummer, a bored-looking woman playing small finger cymbals, and the apparent leader, a flutist playing some sort of straight Cambodian flute (as opposed to the western flute which is played to the side). It was interesting music; the theme of the concert was microtonality–music that uses intervals smaller than a half step, or more informally, music that uses notes that would fit in the cracks between black and white notes on the piano. The Cambodian music was interesting because it was based on a type of pentatonic scale, but somehow a microtonal one. The traditional pentatonic scale is formed of five notes (penta-, five, and tonic, tone) that correspond to the black notes on a piano:

The scale that the Cambodian musicians used was similar to this one, but some of the tones were slightly different than those–a little “off.” That made the music a bit more interesting than typical pentatonic music, which tends to get old fast because there’s very little dissonance and thus few opportunities for tension. But it still grew tiring after a while, because there wasn’t too much variation in the texture and even with the microtonality in the pentatonic scale it still lacked harmonic variety. But, all the same, I was grateful for the opportunity to experience Cambodian classical music, since that opportunity doesn’t come along every day.

Tune in in a few days for part II–“The Well-Tuned Guitar!”

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