SCSU’s Performing Arts Center has hosted some oddities over the few years I have attended. They have ranged from experimental music and art to a mix of martial arts and soundscapes. Unlike the incredibly intriguing concept that was “nothing,” experimental music of any kind has a lot of factors going against them outright. The concert for Poles only showed this to still be the case.
Unless you’re a student of music, a graduate of music or have an open mind to creative music; these kinds of performances rarely stick with you unless they have a gimmick to go along with or produce a sound that is pleasant to listen to. Conventional thinking and popular unconventional methods are very likely to be compared to experimental music and sound. Poles did not have these to go against it when I went to the concert, but there was one thing that certainly didn’t do it any favors. Boredom.
I don’t remember anything interesting about the actual composition(s) in action. Rather, it was everything else that interested me. The odd lighting they had set up was meant to give a source of light but not be the focus. This was intended to allow you to focus on the sounds being produced, yet, ironically, I was drawn to how they were contrasting with everything the artists were doing. Muted reds and blues, and tiny white lights illuminated the quick movements from the performers. I got a BMG vibe from it.
The other thing that interested me was my discussions with the performers after the concert concluded. I learned that Poles was a composition from the 1970s that had a focus on surrounding sounds and multi-component improvisation. The only real requirement for Poles was the use of two shortwave radios.
As the use of shortwave radios has seen a dramatic decrease in popularity since the ’70s, the operator of the SERGE modular synthesizer, Taavi Kerikmäe, mentioned after the concert to me that the duo had found a substitute via tuning into digital radio broadcasts on the internet. This provided the performers with the necessary elements to perform with, and improvise with.
“You have to intake what you hear on the radio, and you have to treat the signal with your own instrument,” Taavi said. “It adds a sort of liveliness to the performance because there is never the same thing coming from the radio when you switch it on the next time.”
One thing that both performers touched on was an unusual form of notation that they referred to as “Plus & Minus Notation.” Poles is a composition that allows for restricted creativity based on the random elements coming from the shortwave radio. Depending on how far into the composition, different elements of the accompanying improvisation may be given emphasis or dialed back to more base elements. This can yield odd results.
I saw the notation on the sheet music, and I asked Camilla Hoitenga about it. Camilla played a variety of the flute family for this concert.
“If you hear something on in the shortwave radio like [imitates static noise] then it would be followed by a plus. You have to do that same thing, but louder, longer, higher, and with more segments. Then the next would have maybe plus, plus, minus minus,” Camilla said. “You have to decide two of those parameters, lets say register and length have to be louder; and the minus minus would be fewer segments, and its left over dynamics, softer…”
“So, I take it that notation was sort of why you kind of were, and pardon me if this is… incorrect to say…, yelling into your giant flute?” I asked.
“Yeah!” Camilla replied, laughing.
All in all, I enjoyed the interviews more than I did the composition itself. In design, Poles is very intriguing to someone like myself who has performed concert pieces in the past. It’s difficult to imagine a concept of structured improvisation in a composition where there are more aspects to take in besides time. I hope that I will never have to find out what it’s actually like to perform one.
As an addendum to aspiring writers, if you find yourself writing a topic where a person involved wishes you luck in trying to write it well enough to convey it to your audience: consider a different perspective on the matter. It will save you a three-day headache I’ve had trying to describe the concert itself like I normally do.
Cody Poirier is an Entrepreneurship major, and is the Lifestyle section editor, business manager and a critic for the University Chronicle. He wastes his time so you don’t have to.