When commercial recording tape became available in 1947, America got in, for the first time, on the ground floor of a musical technology. It was probably the first time American composers weren’t following on the heels of Europe - the two continents, plus Japan developed the technologies and the artistic responses to it in tandem.
Electronics were the perfect musical medium for the eccentric composer who wanted to hide away in his studio, freed from the necessity of ingratiating oneself with chamber music groups and orchestra conductors. And every new technology that came along - the splicing block, the tape loop, the oscillator, MIDI, the sampler, and ultimately the home computer - seemed to bring an entire new musical movement in its wake.
Now, after nearly three decades of electronic musical experiments, it’s interesting to think about how the world of digital technology has completely changed the game; most dramatically in the arena of live performance.
In the last production of Zeitgeist’s 2003-2004 season, Shape Shifting: Shades of Transformation, this is amply explored in the collaboration of Zeitgeist musicians with composer Scott Miller and poet Phillipe Costaglioli to create what they call a “musical response to the delightful yet daunting nature of change.”
Costaglioli and Miller have worked in collaboration since 2001 and Shape Shifting , in many ways, is informed by the foundation of their work together. They hope, however, that it follows a more fluid structure.
Shape Shifting immerses the listener in a lush electronic environment with which the musicians of Zeitgeist dialogue, influencing Miller’s environment as they respond to it. Miller uses a KYMA system to electronically manipulate and timbrally extend the live performer’s instruments, shaping the performances of the ensemble through the combination of improvisation and real-time processing.
In this manner, the work draws out musical expressions predicted by neither the performer nor Miller. These musical choices are often very subtle, but intensely dynamic. This is especially represented in the long percussive passages of the piece and a beautiful bass clarinet solo by woodwind player Pat O’Keefe. There’s a quiet ferocity to the composition, ambitious in its relentless investigation into the problem of change, transformation, and the listener in the role of music. As Miller comments in the program notes, “The possibility also exists for musical transformation to occur “out of time,” or out of the range of the voyeur’s perception. In this instance the process is seemingly interrupted, but it is also the process of witnessing this transformation that is fragmented, more akin to viewing a series of series of snapshots…”
Coupled with Costaglioli’s text, the piece demonstrates scrupulous precision in its exploration, especially from the performers themselves. While at times, Costaglioli’s performance is overstated (his poems were performed in French, English and his native Catalan) there was something very intriguing and dramatic about his presence among the musicians that afforded the piece a deeper kind of intimacy.
Held in Zeitgeist’s newly renovated performance space in downtown St.Paul, Studio Z., the performance was also enhanced by a café-style ambience that promoted a nearly interactive relation with the work. It is a pleasure to watch these performers so closely, particularly because of the improvisational nature of the work. “When Zeitgeist is accompanying the presentation of poetry,” Miller says, ‘the poem and its performance are a part of the larger environment in which the ensemble must exist and adapt.”
Discussing Shape Shifting, Zeitgeist percussionist Heather Barringer comments, “The process that introduces can be so unpredictable that I have to be constantly vigilant, always tracking my musical environment as I search for musical moments of serendipity.”
For all its fluency, Shape Shifting is not for the faint-hearted listener; it is tough, unsparing, blessed free of self-indulgence and offering for our consolation only its scrupulous precision. Zetigest manages to make this music lush and beautiful while retaining its complexity and challenge.
This is highly recommended performance.