Retrospect: Concert of Propositional Music at University of Illinois
It’s been almost a year since on October 13th 2022 American experimental composer, author of the concept “propositonal music”, David Rosenboom, gave a concert at the School of Music at University of Illinois. The event was the highest point in Rosenboom’s residency as a G.A. Miller Visiting Professor. Taking a retrospective look at the event, the text highlights layers that make the past concert historically meaningful.
Starting with a preface, it must be noted that the concert was an event in the series of 12 engagements set around the visit of David Rosenboom to Urbana. The versatile series of lectures, performances, and workshops developed with about 20 faculty and student collaborators was a grandiose effort. The residency became an opportunity to celebrate the immense legacy of U of I as a center of art-technology and art-science nexus. Inspired by the Festival of Contemporary Arts, cybernetics, experimental music performances, and electronic instruments designed by our senior colleagues. The series intended to revive and re-actualize the grand ideas and inspirations that energized the work of such pioneers as Lejaren Hiller (founder of Experimental Music Studios, author of the first AI piece), Murray Babcock (designer of the cellular automata), Carla Scaletti and Kurt Hebel (developers of Kyma sound design environment), and many. Being a witness of many of the referenced breakthroughs, Rosenboom, the pioneer of brainwave music, embodied the spirit of the legacy we aspired to dust off.
On a more personal level, the 2nd residency of Rosenboom as a G.A. Miller Professor was a tribute to its predecessor. In 1995, Salvatore Martirano brought his dear student to University of Illinois – despite illness, finding a chance to celebrate the definitive, (for both Rosenboom and Martirano), friendship and collaboration. As 27 years ago, the Visiting Professor presented a brainwave piece and some other major compositional works to the audience in Urbana. Unlike in the 1990s, Rosenboom had a chance to collaborate not only with composers but also with scholars, scientists, artists, and instrument designers.
Rosenboom performing with Yamaha Disklavier. Photo credit: Frederick Zwicky.
“so the moments of time…at once flee and follow,…” (Hymn of Change)
The concert started at 7:30 p.m., bringing the hoped-for crowd to the Music Building Auditorium. Introduced by composition faculty, Carlos Carillo, the event lifted off with the performance of the Hymn of Change from the large work of Rosenboom – Bell Solaris (1998). Members of the Illinois Modern Ensemble, accompanied by actress Ellen Magee, masterfully delivered the intended feeling of awe – inviting attendees into the listening journey.
Rosenboom plays the electric violin, and J. Metz & J. Yang perform with brainwaves. Photo credit: Frederick Zwicky.
In a moment after, Rosenboom appeared on the scene with two brainwave performers – Joy Yang (then a DMA student) and Jake Metz (PhD student in Informatics). Over 27 minutes of the piece Portable Gold. . .(Deviant Resonances), the audience had a chance to listen to the dynamics of the ‘inner life’ of the two performers. Meanwhile, the composer-performer provided the nervous systems of collaborators with stimuli – tweaking the Touche II software, modifying his analog electronic setup, or playing the electric violin. Though both performers had musical training, Joy Yang and Jake Metz demonstrated two very different responses to auditory stimuli and the stress associated with exhibiting their mental life to the audience. In one case the performer quickly mastered the intentional control of sonic texture created by Alpha waves. In another case – the performer produced multiple unintentional dynamic shifts and changes in the sound texture, ‘letting it go’ and submersing herself in the transformative process. Yet, towards the end, two ‘opposites’ somewhat synchronized in the brainwave performance.
Generative projections created by Ben Grosser. Photo credit: Frederick Zwicky.
The central section of the concert was comprised of solo performances of Rosenboom. The opening piece, Tango Secretum, inspired by the poetry of Martine Bellen, came up as an intermittent interplay of composer-performer and musical software – preparing listeners to further exploration of human/composer–computer algorithm interaction. The next two pieces, Earth Encomoium, and Nothingness is Unstable, were accompanied by responsive generative video projections designed by Ben Grosser, based on the phrases of Salvatore Martirano. Since the artist couldn’t attend the performance, the son of Rosenboom’s mentor, John Martirano, was running the software. The collaboration of two students of Sal, as he was called by friends and colleagues, and his son gave a very touching feeling to the performance. With John acting as an operator and performer, (whose actions modified algorithmic transformations appearing on the screen), and David playing Yamaha Disklavier, (triggering computational listening), this was a uniquely symbolic tribute.
The theme of solace and reverence changed with the dynamic and dramatic Out of Truth (Don’t Motto), performed with projection of the short film of Lewis Klahr.
Though the last section of the piece Tango Secretum was on the program, the composer was too quick to ‘enter the zone’, forgetting to perform the piece. Instead, he jumped to the Keyboard Study for ‘ZONES’ – accompanied by colorful projections created by Ben Grosser. The tension of the performance peaked in the ultimate solo piece – Music for Unstable Circuits (+Piano), a contemporary revision of the ’68 piece.
Illinois Modern Ensemble performing the “Battle Hymn…”. Photo credit: Frederick Zwicky.
The concert was closed by another stellar performance of the Illinois Modern Ensemble, this time conducted by composition faculty and CalArts’ alum Stephen Taylor. The socio-political statement of the Battle Hymn of Insurgent Arts was energetically conveyed by the singer Carly Wingfield (DMA student). Dramatic and lyrical yet evocative and rebellious composition fused in a jazz-rock concert of brass instruments, percussion, and guitars.
The Momentum we lived through will perpetuate in memory of those many who made the event series and the concert possible, and, if I may, those who graciously joined us as the audience. The con-cert was a creation so many of us can fully own. Graham Dunkan, Eli Fieldsteel, and Xavier Davenport were there to capture the event and provide technical support. Nathan Mandel helped us not to be drawn into the chaos surrounding the delivery and operation of the Disklavier. Jake Metz saved the day so many times – helping to make the Muse headbands work, tweaking software, and generously sharing his knowledge and skill.
Multiple units and individuals at University of Illinois who believed in me, (a mere graduate student who struggles to lend her ideas elsewhere), in the project, and provided support. I’m eternally grateful to my dear friend and amazing spirit – Jason Finkelman, who was my reference figure in the hardest times. Jason believed in me in February of 2022, when we just met. He was there to support my grant application. He was there to mediate my work with the School of Music. He was there to offer his wisdom and to balance my intensity with his groundedness. He was there when I was exhausted and close to giving up. He shared with me the moments I am inviting readers to celebrate. And I have to say that Jason Finkelman was there not only in joy but also through the moments of greatest sorrow following the crisis no one expected.
Сollective shot in the South Lobby of the School of Music. Photo credit: Frederick Zwicky.
This text is dedicated to so many who made the concert happen. Writing while away from Urbana-Champaign, I am full of gratitude to those who accompanied me through the two weeks of the last October. Let’s indulge ourselves in appreciating this extraordinary collaboration.
Anastasia Chernysheva, a 3rd year Ph.D. student at University of Illinois.