The New Sound Machines

The New Sound Machines

In Roald Dahl’s story “The Sound Machine,” Klausner, the inventor of a machine that made inaudible sounds audible, explains his concept by saying, “I believe that there is a whole world of sound about us all the time that we cannot hear…there is a new exciting music being made, with subtle harmonies and fierce grinding discords, a music so powerful that it would drive us mad if only our ears were tuned to hear the sound of it.” Although his machine, which could hear the sound of flowers screaming when they were picked, was eventually crushed by an enraged tree, we could say that the evolution of music has offered us thousands of different sound machines that allow us to hear sounds that we never heard before. Whether it is the bleeping, crunchy, ethereal sounds created using computers, traditional instruments being stretched to create exciting new harmonics, or simply the ability to hear music from distant parts of the world, contemporary composers and listeners alike have made extensive use of these new sound “machines” to expand our aural capacity. Whether or not they have driven us mad is yet to be determined…

Plugged in sound machines

Terry Riley – Requiem for Adam

Known in some circles as the father of electronic music, Edgard Varèse was experimenting with two-track tape interpolations of instrumental ensembles in the early 1950s, apparent in “Déserts,” which is included on a new disc of his music released by Naxos. The seed that Varèse planted half a century ago blossoms on several other new recordings such as Steve Mackey’s “macho” concerto for electric guitar and orchestra, entitled “Tuck and Roll,” which recognizes the influence of rock music on contemporary composers. His amplified virtuosity is complemented by complex orchestration and a collection of maverick sounds (i.e. an ensemble of cheap harmonicas). Also extending the range of traditional ensembles, Terry Riley’s Requiem for Adam commemorates the premature death of Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington’s son Adam, making extensive use of electronic sounds during the second movement and stretching the strings through a series of motifs and dances. While Riley transforms emotional reality into sound, Stephen Vitiello’s science project album, Bright and Dusty Things, attempts to hear light by using a photocell device to translate the color and intensity of light into an analog pitch and duration. Complete with electronic processing and Pauline Oliveros adding her talents on accordion, this album allows you to hear what you could once only see.

Laurie Anderson – Life on a String

Keeping up with technology, Charlie Hunter’s Songs from the Analog Playground creates a fun jazz/hip-hop/electronica hybrid, featuring the voices of Mos Def, Kurt Elling, and Norah Jones. Emphasizing the amount of individual freedom bestowed upon artists by technology, Ted Killian is the auteur of Flux Aeterna, having composed all of the music, played all the instruments, and designed the packaging and cover art! New Age composer Tim Tatum also wore many different hats during the production of his recording Music and the World, which blends together music from all corners of the earth. Meanwhile, flutist Alexander Zonjic couples his primary instrument with other ambient sounds fashioned using “sound machines” on Reach for the Sky. Meanwhile, Laurie Anderson’s beautifully packaged new album Life on a String tells stories with vocals, electronic tools, and acoustic instruments, including offbeat ones like the Claviola, Mellotron, and the mysterious “box-o-toys” to construct a composite of underground pop, folk, and avant-garde.

Groovin’ sound machines

Jason Moran – Black Stars

The jazz combo itself could be considered yet another of our many new sound machines, altering the sounds of existing instruments such as the saxophone, the trombone, or the drums. In addition, a lot of early jazz has been brought to our modern ears through recordings played on yet another machine. Written versions often didn’t exist until someone sat down and meticulously transcribed each and every note, and even with it written down, there was no substitute for hearing the original. Fortunately for us, many of Fats Waller’s compositions and energetic renditions of standards were preserved through recordings and released on a CD entitled The 1935 Transcriptions. Boston-based composer Ferdinando Argenti‘s self-titled album brings a whole slew of new sounds simply by writing songs in both English and Italian (and throwing in an accordion for some extra Italian flair). Transforming the bicultural sound of Argenti into a multicultural one, bassist-composer Lonnie Plaxico stirs Brazilian, Spanish, New York, New Orleans, and Chicago influences into one coherent, rhythmically interesting Mélange. Driving rhythms are also present on pianist-composer Jason Moran’s Black Stars, which engages his catchy, almost addictive, riffs in conversation with underlying rhythms that occasionally take center stage.

Rick Margitza – Memento

Ran Blake’s love for film noir and inimitable improvisations highlight a 2-CD disc entitled Sonic Temples, which includes original compositions and interpretations of standards all bordering on the verge of atonality, yet maintaining layers of hypnotic melodies. If after listening to Blake’s disc, you desire to stay in a mellow state of consciousness (which is likely), pop in Rodney Jones’ Soul Manifesto and take an inward journey guided by the guitar’s honesty and Dr. Lonnie Smith on a Hammond B-3. Or, if you want complete sensual enjoyment from your jazz, check out the beautiful saxophone duets and polytonal harmonies on Rick Margitza’s Memento, which along with a glass of red wine and a hot tub, could be your golden ticket.

Baby sound machines

Marion Bauer

In 1846, Adolphe Sax patented his family of “saxophones,” a metallic clarinet-oboe hybrid that was originally used in military music. Since then, the saxophone has been strongly associated as the melodic backbone of jazz, but on Volume VII of America Millennium Tribute to Adolphe Sax, several pieces outside the jazz idiom feature the saxophone family, such as Allen Brings’ “Three Fantasies for saxophone quartet.” A re-issue of a 1994 disc features a different kind of quartet, this time the more traditional string variation, in pieces by American superstars such as Nancarrow, Carter, Ives, Yim, Feldman, Lucier, Young, and Cage, reminding us how far music has come since the Razumovsky Quartets. Marion Bauer welcomes us back into tonality (sort of…) with her incredibly sensitive works for varying combinations of piano, flute, and violin. On a recording of Original Works for Flute and Organ, Alan Hovhaness contributed his “Sonata for Ryuteki and Sho,” which imitates Japanese and Chinese instruments bringing out whole new tone colors. The sound deepens and expands on Robert Sirota’s Works for Cello, featuring the wonderfully eerie organ/cello duet “Easter Canticles.”

The Mother of all Sound Machines

Hovhaness, Short, Young – Mystical Mountains

The orchestra. Like some wacky mechanical invention straight out of Chaplin’s Modern Times; it consumes all. The strings moving in unison, the percussionists dancing in the back between instruments, the oboists swabbing their horns, the trombone players reading a magazine, waiting for their movement to begin (well, I guess you only see that from behind)…anyway, leaving my Ode to the Orchestra and slowly regaining focus, Leonardo Balada matches the piano and guitar with orchestra sprinkled with Andalusian rhythms in his “Piano Concerto No. 3” and “Concierto M·gico.” The orchestra (the London Symphony Orchestra to be exact) then becomes infused with pop music sounds as Mitch Hampton traces the evolution of popular music from slave spirituals to rock music in his “Symphony No. 1,” showing how it comes full circle beginning and ending with the same four note motif. A very beautiful Smetana-like unison melody begins “Visions from High Rock” by Alan Hovhaness, the first track on Mystical Mountains featuring the music of Hovhaness, Michael Young, and Gregory Short and exploring the subtly of the symphony orchestra.

John Adams – El Niño

John Adams maximizes the capability of sound machines through the use of singers (including three vocal soloists and two choirs), orchestra, and the possibility of dancers in his brand new nativity oratorio El Niño. Gian Carlo Menotti’s madrigal opera The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore continues in a similar vein to El Niño, telling the story of the three stages in the life of a wealthy man who lives in a castle and calling for chorus, dancers, and nine instrumentalists. Further reduced, Leonora Christine, Andy Pape’s opera about a princess’ imprisonment in a tower, pairs a conservatory-trained soprano with a cabaret singer, creating attention-grabbing duets. Finally, Shall We Gather celebrates a facet of American religious life through a collection of hymns and spirituals.

The infinite expansion of the sound universe becomes more apparent with each innovation, whether it is the invention of a new instrument, a new technological tool, or a distinctive combination of personnel. The more you hear, the more you realize you haven’t heard, and that’s enough to drive any music lover mad.

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