Florent Colautti performing last night at the Center for New Music
Florent Colautti performing last night at the Center for New Music
by Abigail Brown

Last night’s sfSoundSalonSeries event at the Center for New Music (C4NM), curated by Kyle Bruckmann, had to be reduced by half. Because his car had broken down, Albuquerque-based trombonist Christian Pincock was unable to appear; so the focus of the evening became the live electronic music of Florent Colautti, making the first stop on a mini-tour of California that will continue through May 4. The first half of the program was devoted to solo work on an instrument of his own invention that he calls the e-String. This was followed by a group improvisation with three of the sfSoundGroup musicians, Bruckmann on oboe and English horn, Matt Ingalls on clarinet, bass clarinet, and an extended hosepipe with clarinet mouthpiece and bell, and John Ingle on alto saxophone.

Watching Colautti play his solo, I was reminded of just how far live electronic music has come since the days when "Source: Music of the Avant-Garde" was the major publication for practitioners. I first became aware of this approach to making music in 1968 while writing about the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. At that time almost all of Cunningham’s choreography was performed to live electronic music performed by John Cage, David Tudor, and Gordon Mumma. The three of them worked from a long table filled with analog equipment (primitive by today’s standards), including the sorts of components that Robert Moog integrated into his first modular synthesizer, a plethora of mixers, and what seemed like miles of cable.

By contrast Colautti sat behind a rather modest table (a kitchen table for a bachelor pad, rather than a “family-sized” model), on which his e-String was placed. This somewhat resembled a short koto with pickups for individual strings at one end and small moveable pieces capable of shortening the length of the vibrating portion of two adjacent strings at the other. Output from the pickups then provided input to a laptop running Max/MSP signal processing software.

No keyboard was part of this process. Most of Colautti’s activities involved moving those pieces to change vibration length; but it also involved some physical contact with the strings and considerable control through a touch-sensitive tablet. I have previously observed that, in live electronic music, there is frequently little sense of causality or coordination between what the performer is doing and what the listener encounters. Listening must confine itself strictly to effect, since cause may be little more than accidental.

Last night’s performance dwelt heavily on the auditory effects of beat frequencies, the pulsing sounds that emerge when two tones very close in frequency are superposed. The logic behind Colautti’s performance seemed to be one of exploring different settings for these beats, controlling the frequency of pulsation and the different timbres arising by superposing sounds with different spectral properties. For the most part the performance was quietly methodical; but the overall structure involved a gradual crescendo, whose emerging impact lent a rhetoric of tension. That tension built to a powerful (but not deafening) climax, followed by a comparatively rapid release. The piece then concluded with a coda based on an entirely new set of sonorities, all isolated points of sound, probably created by frequency-rich sources, such as pulses and square waves. (Those who remember their engineering calculus may recall that the rich spectrum comes from the wave form being non-differentiable.)

In the group improvisation Colautti repurposed the expressiveness of his instrument to provide a landscape within which the three sfSoundGroup musicians explored their instruments. Possibly in response to the sonorities of that landscape, much of the improvisation had to do with breath, sometimes forsaking the reed as the primary source of vibrations. Ingle also worked with the percussive sounds made by closing the pads on his saxophone. At one point Bruckmann played directly into his oboe without the reed, and Ingalls used heavy breathing through the hosepipe to vibrate a small metal plate placed over the clarinet bell at the other end.

Very little of this improvisation involved anything resembling melodic motifs, perhaps because the same could be said of Colautti’s opening e-String solo. Rather, the improvisation was an exploration of sound-producing processes, shifting the focus from the electronic domain of the e-String to the underlying vibrations in the physical tubes serving as instruments. In this physical domain the causality of body movement was far more evident. However, because the sounds themselves departed so radically from convention, the impact of listening, even with causal cues, was far more intense, engaging, and perplexing, all at the same time.

It was comforting to leave C4NM last night knowing just how alive and well (not to mention adventurous) avant-garde practices can still be.