Playing with electronics isn't forgiving," explains trumpeter Alex Fioto. "You press Play, and that's it."
Indeed, until the last two decades, it was very difficult to control and manipulate electronic sounds in real time. Composers created fixed tape parts that musicians might play with, around or over. In Karlheinz Stockhausen's wild 1960 piece for piano, percussion and four-channel electronics, Kontakte, acoustic sounds emerge from and get subsumed by swirling electronics. Milton Babbitt's Philomel, from 1964, stages a soprano against a shifting wall of synthesizers and prerecorded voices. Mario Davidovsky's series Synchronisms embeds various ensembles in disparate electronic spaces. While there are some examples of live electronics in the 1960s and 1970s, live processing didn't really become possible until the '90s, when it opened up an ever-widening range of human/electronic interactions. The possibilities remain in flux.
"In performance with live humans, adapting is part of the process and the experience," Fioto says. "When performing with electronics, the only one who can adapt is you. It's very exposing."
Fioto, trombonist Jonathan Randazzo and keyboardist Olga Kleiankina will soon take that risk and navigate that treacherous terrain with a new four-piece program called Mission Red at Kings. Part of an expanding lineup of unconventional chamber music concerts presented in rock clubs by the North Carolina Symphony (Randazzo is the symphony's assistant principal trombonist, and Fioto regularly joins the symphony's trumpet section), the concert provides a revealing cross section of what classical music and electronic instruments can offer each other. Past shows in this series have paired Ravel with live art, Schubert with resonant drones and Bach with cheeky percussion and electronics.
"We began the series to provide a platform for N.C. Symphony musicians to present work they believe in, in a space where they feel comfortable to experiment and take risks," says the symphony's general manager, Martin Sher. "We also are eager for people to get to know our musicians on a personal level. Full orchestra concerts don't always lend themselves to audiences developing one-to-one relationships with the musicians."
Randazzo and Fioto embrace that experimental ambition in four virtuosic works that push boundaries while remaining largely accessible. The first—Eric Ewazen's An Elizabethan Songbook from 1989—doesn't involve electronics at all. An arrangement of a short song cycle based on Elizabethan poetry, it is the most traditionally classical piece of the program thanks to glistening neo-Romantic harmonies and Renaissance-like dance rhythms.
Then things get weird.
For Michael Davis' Mission Red, written in 1994, Randozzo will play over what sounds like very sophisticated Muzak, as though a pile of late '80s sequencers have run amok. The yawning gulf between the trombone's expressive melodies and the tape's icy regularity and exaggerated synths entices with tension.
That gap between human and electronics diminishes in James Mobberley's Icarus Wept for trumpet, organ and electronics. The organ acts as an acoustic bridge between musician and machine, and Mobberley's tape uses actual samples of trumpet sounds, coins, voices and other weirdness. You detect the electronics, but they flow almost seamlessly in and around the instruments. Mobberley's musical language is exuberant and playful, too, particularly the way he dapples random bits of speech across gnarly runs of trumpet and organ. Fioto heard Icarus Wept while in college and waited for years for the right opportunity to perform it. He convinced Randazzo, his bandmate in the Boylan Bridge Brass quintet, to give it a chance.
Written for trumpet and trombone, 2008's Out of Hand by John Gibson inverts the human-electronic interaction. Instead of people working to keep pace with the electronics, the circuits respond to the humans. The sounds Randazzo and Fioto make trigger electronic events. Sometimes they are echoes and transformations of the trumpet's bouncy rhythms; other times, they thicken and comment on the long, lovely tones of the trombone. By the end, a series of fanfares dodges around a strangely funky, computer-generated bass line.
For Fioto and Randazzo, a rock club offers the perfect chance to make an emphatic case about the interactions between brass and electronics. They've got loud instruments, and Kings has a big sound system.
"Chamber music doesn't always fit well with brass instruments. When collaborating with piano and/or strings, we always need to play softer to let others through the texture. It oftentimes prohibits the trumpet and trombone from singing through at our comfortable and most resonant dynamic range," Fioto says. "With electronics, we can just turn up the volume and play comfortably and beautifully."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Auxiliary input"