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Agents Against Agency
by Ecosono
Ted Coffey
EMMI Robot Ensemble
MICE (Mobile Interactive Computer Ensemble)
Yuri Spitsyn
Matthew Burtner/Michael Straus: saxophones
PInko Communoids
12 Dog Cycle/Rosalind Hall
Christopher Burns/David Dinnell
Emergence Collective
MICE Orchestra

Music and environmental concerns have long gone hand in hand for artists with the sort of wanderlust that manifests as a passion for discovering sonic source material beyond traditional musical instruments and for presenting work outside of standard concert hall settings. The artist collective called Ecosono is devoted to melding experimental sound art and environmental preservation, in an effort to highlight ecological awareness through innovative musical creations. Their new DVD, Agents Against Agency, documents nine multimedia projects exploring the interconnections between musical expression in dialog with the surrounding environment, both natural and manmade.

The works presented on Agents Against Agency vary widely in scope, and each group has its own concept of what combining music with nature means. The first presentation by Ted Coffey, Parabolic Fountain Music, mounts six sculptural parabolic speakers in a Virginia stream and pairs their highly focused sounds with swirling video of the immediately surrounding area. According to the program notes (presented in the “Extras” section of the DVD), recordings of ducks and loons are used to control the synthesis of other recordings of streams and oceans, making up the sonic portion of the work. Although the camera motion managed to make me seasick (I’ve never been very good on boats), the video still shots are quite beautiful, as is the speaker display, which would be a treat to experience live.

Drum Circle by EMMI (Expressive Machines Musical Instruments) is a charming performance by a robot percussion ensemble placed into a forest setting. The robot arms playing assorted small instruments such as woodblocks, flower pots, and small pieces of metal—along with a snare drum and djembe—create surprisingly quiet, spare music, and although it is not specifically stated in the notes, I assume they are responding to the serene forest setting. This is Sunday drumming in the park taken to a new level.

The dramatic landscape of the Namib desert in southern Africa serves as the setting for Sandprints by MICE (Mobile Interactive Computer Ensemble). Microphones buried in the sand transform the desert into “a dynamic control interface for the ensemble.” The song that slowly emerges begins with processed, rhythmic, “sandy” sounds that are contrasted with a melody whistled by the performers. Additional melodic lines are layered over top, resulting in a quirky dance tune—so much so that once the music has completely blossomed, a group of dancing people emerge over a sand dune to join the ensemble and make it a party.

Before the Seiche, by Christopher Burns and David Dinnell, is pure computer-generated sound—noise and digital feedback—accompanied by lovely, foggy, processed videos that use monochrome analog capture of approaching storms.

Two of the works on the DVD explore the acoustics of an object by relocating the listener inside the object itself. In Ghost in the Machine, Yuri Spitsyn explores the acoustics of a computer using vibration sensors to amplify its internal rumblings during normal use. The musical portion of Matthew Burtner’s (dis)Locations records the sound of one saxophone playing as it is amplified through another (making the inside of a saxophone the concert hall) and travels into a refreshingly dense and timbrally interesting sonic world. The accompanying visual story is a sort of scavenger hunt in which pieces of a saxophone are discovered in a forest and assembled on the spot.

Two other works are more standard improvisations for ensemble taken outside of a traditional space. The Pinko Communoids perform A Long Pond in a field in Maine with percussion, guitar, and accordion, while 12 Dog Cycle with Rosalind Hall employ extended vocal techniques, saxophone, and accordion in an abandoned, crumbling, and highly resonant brickwork factory in Melbourne. This film is perhaps the most visually stunning of all, mixing ultra-saturated color with shadow and light play as the ensemble wanders about playing in the space during the early morning hours.

While the presentation of the works on Agents Against Agency range from polished multimedia works to rough and tumble performance documentation, as in Unity Groove for a large-scale ensemble of 250 laptop performers, this is a compelling selection of art that is both engaging to the ears and to the eyes—well worth checking out for fans of computer music and for those interested in the multitude of ways that sound and ecology (in whatever fashion one may define those words) intertwine.

(The following video shows an excerpt of Sandprints, which is also available on an earlier Ecosono release.)

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