Standing Wave’s “Acousmatic” – a Synæsthesiac’s Feast

Synaesthesiac

Adventurous. Uncompromising. Inimitable. Sought-after. How great to hear so many superlatives in Vancouver—that are justified. As violinist Rebecca Whitling welcomed us to their “Acousmatic” concert at the Orpheum Annex last Sunday, she seemed to tear up at the prospect of finding even more superlatives with which to thank her fellow musicians. Standing Wave has been around for a long time—long enough to have either earned those superlatives legitimately or to have them dashed on the rocks of hyperbole—but tonight they were well warranted.

Evanescence

The first work, Gordon Fitzell’s Evanescence, was presented as but an amuse-bouche for the ears (amuse-oreille?). This was perfect as my ears needed time to adjust. I’ve been to enough electro-acoustic concerts to know that the batting average for electro-acoustic music isn’t that good—either it fizzles out due to technical glitches or the two media never quite reconcile leading to a cage match. But thanks to some excellent planning and artistic leadership from Giorgio Magnanensi and others, Evanescence proved how satisfying electro-acoustic can be. Surrounded by waves of intriguing sound and my ears sufficiently amused, I was ready for more.

Red Arc / Blue Veil

Although I missed the promised palindrome in John Luther Adams’s Red Arc / Blue Veil, I revelled in all the visuals implied by the work’s title. For the record, synæsthesia had once been my friend until the day I discovered that I was alone in the assumption that each of the four Brahms symphonies had its inherent colour (Number 1 is blue, 2 is yellow, 3 is a dusty pink, and 4 is avocado-green). So it was gratifying for Adams to permit me to let my ears once again see colour.

John Luther Adams is to music what Edward Burtynsky is to photography. To convey the enormity of the landscapes of his native Alaska and his concerns over the deterioration of our natural world, Adams is now writing music intended for performance out-of-doors. To get a sense of the titanic forces Adams wrestles with, listen to his riveting talk, “Music in the Anthropocene” (given last year at the Banff Centre), in which he described the role of the artist in a world of Climate Change. Against such a canvas, Red Arc / Blue Veil was a comparatively small and intimate meditation on “those inner sounds that are the life of the colours” to quote Kandinsky.

Subject / Object

Foreshadowing the physical comedy that was to come in his music, James O’Callaghan slunk onto the stage nervously for his talk about Subject / Object. Percussionist Vern Griffiths was quick (and classy) to put O’Callaghan at ease allowing us to get in touch with his kinesthetic approach to sound. Not at all a grammar lesson as its title implied, O’Callaghan’s Subject / Object was an attempt to “rationalize the irrational” by turning objects into subjects. It’s as if Standing Wave’s Pierrot-plus instrumentation wasn’t quite enough for O’Callaghan, so he poked and prodded about the stage looking looking for more stuff to play with—usually to great comic effect.

While the players diligently performed their parts, an array of surreal theatrics ensued. Balloons popped inside the piano, a kitchen chair was dragged dramatically across the stage and then subjected to other indignities from the percussionist’s toolkit, and we all squirmed as a bucket of “water” was tipped into the open piano (although electronics came to the rescue just in time with appropriately watery sounds). Nothing overlooked, even the click of flutist Christie Reside’s high-heeled shoes was employed as musical counterpoint (I’m not sure if a composer who’s comfortable referencing Ren & Stimpy would be aware of this, but Reside’s transit across the stage was a perfect homage to Michael Snow’s Walking Women). Bravo to that.

O Superman

The featured work of the evening was an electro-acoustic adaption of Laurie Anderson’s 1981 art rock hit O Superman set for Standing Wave by Vancouver composer Alfredo Santa Ana.

I suspected that some form of calculated risk was involved in casting Veda Hille to sing this role (and I don’t mean a box office calculated risk, although that may have accounted for fifty percent of the audience), but why substitute Anderson’s deadly accurate chops for Hille’s folksy peeping except to avoid, as Santa Ana put it, casting “one of those Art Song singers”?

While her vocal range may comprise the full octave the song demands, vocal quality and diction were moot as she leaned heavily on the FX processor, intended in the original as an expressive device. Veda Hille, O Veda Hille. It’s like walking into the room in time for the laughter but too late for the punch line.  Still, Santa Ana artfully exchanged phrases from violin to flute to bass clarinet and onward giving the art rock original an air of chamber music without sacrificing the sensibility of the source material.

Finale

Even if Standing Wave had lower standards or were perhaps more weird, they would still retain their hold as Vancouver’s premier new music ensemble with their ability to seamlessly integrate solid musicianship with glitchless electronics.

In addition to all the gear and high production values, their kitchen-party warmth—whether the informal extemporizing of Vern Griffiths or pianist Allen Stiles’s comic timing—helped ensure that they could programme pretty much whatever they please and still come across as refreshingly accessible.