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COLLAGE New Music plays Media Lab works


Music from the MIT Media Lab.

Works by Child, Rowe,

Harvey and Machover.

Joan Heller, soprano soloist.

Symphony Hall, Feb. 24, 8 pm.



PEOPLE'S OPINIONS about COLLAGE New Music's Sunday performance at Symphony Hall will fluctuate wildly according to what kind of people they are and their particular opinion about music. To be fair, the least I can do is provide three different reviews.

A) The purist; the classical; the narrow-minded: Sunday's performance at Symphony Hall left me with a throbbing headache that persisted long into the night, despite my having ingested several brands of pain killers. It never became clear to me whether the source of the headache was the fault of the composers or the performers. Either the performers were making shameful mistakes that transformed the music into noise, or the composers themselves composed just that -- noise. Whichever was the case, the music alternated tempos and notes sporadically, making the concert sound like a hymn to confusion, specifically designed to overwhelm the senses.

There was some entertainment value over the course of the night. Associate Professor of Music and Media Tod Machover's conducting closely resembled one of Jane Fonda's workout videos, while soprano Joan Heller did a very effective imitation of a dog at the veterinarian.

B) The self-important avant-garde: Sunday's performance at Symphony Hall was miraculous in its scope and breathtaking in its beauty. The music, although performed with surgical precision, was rich in the power of its expression. Tod Machover's conducting was flawless, and delivered the power of his music with grace. Joan Heller's voice soared to the heights of aesthetic bliss, in a performance that was executed with the perfection that only true talent can achieve.

C) The Other Option: Sunday's performance at Symphony Hall was sometimes breathtaking, sometimes overpowering, sometimes expressive and sometimes alien. The list of adjectives could go on and on, but many of these adjectives mean opposite things. This is not a flaw of the music, but rather a measure of its range and its nature.

By definition, classical music is the most expressive music in terms of the range of feelings it can convey. We are all used to the grand, romantic, and glorified treatment that classical music is usually given, but classical music (or rather, its range of instruments and orchestration) can express anything from the deepest cry of horror to a desperate feeling of confusion.

This emotional spectrum is exactly what COLLAGE New Music attempts to present. Through exploration with traditionally classical instruments, COLLAGE New Music expresses the range of feelings

that traditional composing so seldom examines.

The key word to describe COLLAGE New Music is experimentation. Sunday's collaboration with the Media Lab explored the relationship between acoustic and electronic music. This did not result in the


stereotypical sound that we have come to expect from this mix of music.

The computers effectively enhanced the acoustic real-life, real-time performance. In Tod Machover's Flora, operatic sounds (based on the voice of soprano Karol Bennett) were juxtaposed against computer graphics to create one of the most beautiful and powerful pieces I have had the opportunity of hearing (or seeing).

In Robert Rowe's Banff Sketches, a computer composed and performed music to complement a pianist Christopher Oldfather's playing. This may sound like a strange combination, and it was. One would expect that the computer would create music that was ridiculous and unrelated to the piece as a whole; instead, the computer enhanced the Oldfather's interpretation of the music. There were computer-generated sounds present in every piece, but it was only in Banff Sketches that a computer was actually responsible for the creation of the music.

Sunday's performance was indeed a hymn to confusion at times. Sometimes it was an expression of horror. To be honest, Joan Heller did sound occasionally like a wailing dog (and Machover did flap his arms comically). Still, she conveyed a feeling of transcendence in her music.

That sometimes you felt confusion, sometimes horror, and sometimes, sheer joy, was not a flaw in the music. It was its virtue. I can understand how people who have never heard ensembles like the Kronos Quartet -- or any other promoters of modern music -- could find COLLAGE New Music to be strange, silly, and perhaps even repugnant. There is no doubt that COLLAGE New Music has to be appreciated with an open mind.

These days it is rare to find music that is so expressive, so bold, and so pioneering. Because, like the crew of the USS Enterprise, COLLAGE New Music dares to go where no others have gone before, they deserve nothing but praise.