Arts & Culture

A series of concerts by Fromm Players marks 60 years of electronic music

4 min read

Contemporary classical music is a ‘kaleidoscope with fractal changes’

The names Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Haydn are etched in a ring near the ceiling of Harvard’s Paine Hall. It’s an open question whether these classical masters would have recognized the music performed there last week (March 7-8). But at least one performer is certain that they’d understand.

“To me,” said New York flutist Patti Monson, who played two contemporary works as part of the recent concerts, “this is classical. If Mozart were alive, he would be writing the same stuff.”

Monson said the modern repertoire allows artists a highly nuanced range of sound and tone.

“It just gives it a rich color. It’s like a kaleidoscope with fractal changes.”

The works were at times dissonant, at times abrupt, sometimes smooth, sometimes full of explosive energy, often atonal. Occasional sharp and soft sounds of gurgling water, a ringing bell, and an intermittent crackling emanating from different sections of the hall were all auditory components of the series of concerts, a weekend’s worth of tributes to electronic music.

“The Fromm Players at Harvard: 60 Years of Electronic Music” was a two-day event that featured four concerts with a mix of tape-recorded work and live classical music instruments that were played in tandem with pre-recorded sound, as well as manipulation of the sound from the instruments on stage through a complex electronic station that resembled a NASA command post.

To enhance the music, 32 speakers placed horizontally and vertically about the hall gave full meaning to the term surround sound. The Hydra loudspeaker orchestra, designed by Hans Tutschku, Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of Music and director of the Harvard University Studio for Electroacoustic Composition, diffused the sound throughout the space, adding another compelling audio dimension to the works.

Tutschku, who manned the concert hall’s mission control, also directed this year’s event and compiled the repertoire. The works selected, he said, were in part homage to French composer Pierre Schaeffer, who invented musique concrète, a precursor to electronic music, which manipulates the taped recordings of real world, environmental sounds. Schaeffer held his first musique concrète concert in Paris in 1948.

The variety of works also honored the marriage of technology and music that developed in earnest at the end of the 19th century with the spread of electricity. The diverse electronic music that has developed since then includes experimentation with musical time. “Natural time flow,” read the concert’s program notes, could be “interrupted, repeated, reversed and layered, something impossible to envision without technology.”

The annual event is sponsored by the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, an organization dedicated to the preservation and creation of contemporary music. Established by German-born Paul Fromm more than a half century ago, the foundation has been located at Harvard since 1972. Over the years, it has commissioned more than 300 new works.

The concert also featured the work of Helmut Lachenmann, the Fromm Foundation Visiting Professor for spring 2008. Lachenmann’s “Pression” (1969-70) was a piece for solo cello performed by local cellist David Russell on Friday.

The only work played without any accompanying manipulation or additional recorded tracks, it stretched the limits of the cello’s conventional techniques as Russell slid his fingers up and down the strings to create an ethereal sound and quickly struck the bow on the strings, turning his cello into a type of percussion instrument. The work was performed with the music stand very low to the ground, said Russell, to allow the audience to see as much of the performer’s movements as possible.

The musician admitted the work challenged the notion of how a cello is typically played.

“It’s like taking a bowling ball and doing something other than bowling with it,” he said.

The late-night concert on Friday, which began at 11 p.m., drew a crowd for the electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1969-70 work “Mantra.” The 70-minute piece featured two pianists playing in tandem on two grand pianos and a selection of small percussion instruments. Throughout the work, the performers electronically manipulated the sound through the use of a sine wave generator.

For Tutschku, the weekend offered listeners a unique audio experience — one that encircled them in sound and exposed them to music that “extended and broadened the palette of expression.”