Sprawling West Philly church hosts electronic music
The truly forgotten children of modern classical music are often electronic.
The pieces are continually superseded technologically and maybe weren't given a proper hearing to begin with. So in that light, harpist Elizabeth Huston's 10 Synchronisms concert is more than a high-concept event at 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, but a repertoire reclamation of electronic works by Mario Davidovsky. Written starting in the early 1960s, at the dawn of electronic music, the 10 works will be distributed over four rooms at Holy Apostles and the Mediator Episcopal Church in West Philadelphia, each space chosen for maximum acoustic impact.
Even at their most technologically primitive, they're worth resurrecting: "Sometimes, you can tell when [composers] just found some sounds and pasted them together. But the first of Davidovsky's pieces is pretty advanced," says Huston, who founded A Change of Harp, the organization producing the event.
All Synchronisms combine live instruments and prerecorded electronic tracks that, if you listen to performances posted on YouTube, may not seem so interesting. It's not their fault, says Huston: "The electronic element is impossible to hear on recordings. They lose a lot of low rumbly sounds. High sounds get completely lost. These pieces aren't recorded very often because people recognize that there's no way to show them off."
Thus, the venue. Said to be one of the largest churches of its kind in the United States, it's at out-of-the-way 260 S. 51st St. and has a variety of spaces that accommodate the 10 works. Audiences won't have any great distance to walk from one to another. "We'll go from the gym to the chapel to the sanctuary to the [auditorium] stage area," Houston said. "Each room will already be set up for the variety of pieces. We'll stay in each room for a couple of pieces and then move on."
Each room feels like a different world. The gym is painted with words like Happiness in bright, primary colors. The large auditorium has a time-warp feel. There, she will have surround-sound effects, with some musicians in the small classrooms that overlook the stage.
The composer has stated that he's after blends, "to find ways of embedding both the acoustic and the electronic into a single coherent musical and aesthetic space." Yet room choices were hardly simple. Synchronism No. 1 for solo flute was a natural fit for the acoustically live gym, to enhance interplay between reverberation and echo. Although the solo guitar piece (No. 10) might also seem to benefit from an acoustic boost, "it uses space and silence to create tension, so it was important for it to be on the drier stage upstairs," Houston said. Multiple rooms also require multiple sets of electronic equipment, which is why Temple University's well-equipped Boyer Electroacoustic Ensemble Project is a key presence here.
Written mostly at two- and three-year intervals up through the 2006 piece for clarinet, the Synchronisms by the now-82-year-old Argentina-born but New York-based composer are perhaps best understood in counterpoint to Luciano Berio's similar but more-famous Sequenzas. Davidovsky and Berio are of the generation that believed each composer was obliged to reinvent music on his or her own. Berio went on to write grand orchestral and operatic works; Davidovsky pursued a quieter path, directing the Columbia-Princeton Music Center for many years.
For Huston, 29, a graduate of Temple University, one composer became the logical progression from another. A Change of Harp seemed to come out of nowhere at the 2014 Philly Fringe Festival with a quirky installation presentation of Berio's Sequenzas at the First Unitarian Church. Each piece was performed in a separate room decorated to recall its decade of origin. Following up on that, the Davidovsky works were suggested to Huston by Bowerbird's Dustin Hurt, who is participating in the promotion of 10 Synchronisms. This time, the visual element will mainly consist of lighting to direct the audience's attention, chiefly because Davidovsky's voice as a composer hasn't changed over the decades the way Berio's has.
Huston laments that none of the Davidovsky pieces requires her chosen instrument, harp, but much of her work goes well beyond harp-related concerns." As I got more involved with composers and got to know them, I realized they aren't being very well supported in our current climate," she said. "So I decided from a humanist perspective I wanted to support these people. And then I fell in love with new music."
Finding the musicians for such events isn't easy. The works are dense, virtuosic, knotty, fast, and with few of the typical signposts known of more conventional works. Preparation is time-consuming. For the Sequenzas, Huston had to import some New York musicians who knew them already. Her first commitment, though, is to Philadelphia: She wants local musicians to learn these works for her event and keep performing them in the future. "Once they know these pieces," she says, "they aren't likely to throw them away."
There can't have been many Davidovsky retrospective composers such as this one, especially as new works so often disappear after the first hearing. The sad part is that the composer is not likely to be at 10 Synchronisms. "He apparently has an ill wife. He's been a little out of the picture," says Huston. "I haven't been able to reach him."
10 Synchronisms. 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday at the Holy Apostles and the Mediator Episcopal Church. Tickets: $15-20. Information: https://a-change-of-harp.ticketleap.com.