Reviews: LIVEWIRE Festival (Baltimore)

LIVEWIRE Festival, UMBC (Baltimore)

This past weekend I had the fortune of attending a portion of the first LIVEWIRE Festival held at the University of Maryland: Baltimore County (unfortunately, no connection with Baltimore’s other Wire).

Nestled on a hilltop campus, LIVEWIRE focused on music in the first decade of the 21st century.  “This period of political, economic, and social upheaval has inspired a most prolific musical decade,” cites Linda Dusman, spearhead and chair of the concert committee of UMBC, “an era exhibiting a multiplicity of styles that have coalesced into a diversity unprecedented in music history.”

Keeping in mind the diversity aspect of the festival, a strong cross-section of musically-interested demographics were in attendance: an eclectic student body, members of UMBC’s forward-thinking music faculty, public onlookers like myself, and a handful of lecturers and performers from universities around the world.

For me this was an immense event that, at this moment, is still being absorbed through my skin.  There is much to be said.  Some things I may be able to introduce in later posts. In the meantime, I’d like to share some of the things that deeply resonated with me.  For a full list of everything that happened, see here.

Kyle Adams (Indiana University), in his lecture “Who Composed The Grey Album, or, What Did Danger Mouse Do?” implored that the mash-up genre is actually some kind of postmodern performance tool.  He states “The Grey Album, like other mash-ups, is unique in that those responsible for the music wrote none of the lyrics, those responsible for the lyrics wrote none of the music, and the artist who combined lyrics and music wrote neither,” and asks the questions “Who, then, ‘owns’ the various textures that comprise the work?  Who gets credit for the creation of The Grey Album?  Can it legitimately be called a composition at all?  If not, what kind of creative work is it?Ultimately, Adams proposes that it is in fact most likened to a “performance” in so much that by creating The Grey Album, Danger Mouse demonstrates the talent of a performer in showing technical prowess, an ear for re-interpretation, and the intuition to challenge a listener’s expectation.

Later that evening, the piano/percussion duo of Paul Hoffmann and Tom Goldstein wove a program of serious, playful, and seriously playful music.  For me, the program was most poignant in Goldstein’s own You’re Not a Composer (1999) by which the duo addressed some of the underlying tensions of this kind of festival in what some call the highest form of art: humor.  Initially baited as an introduction but in reality the piece itself, Goldstein spoke to the audience that he was not in fact interested in the sound, but the “pre-sound,” while Hoffmann interjected, “You’re not a composer!”  And to a room filled with many opinions, Goldstein, smug with a straight face and a raised finger claimed, “sound is the least most important thing in music.”

Per Bloland presented the Electromagnetically Prepared Piano, developed through Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.  Conceived as a device, each magnet has the potential to signal a sine tone to activate piano strings. When activated by the magnets the sound that results can be synthetic, capturing the tone of the piano but without the characterizing attack of the instrument.

Although somewhat removed from the timeframe in question, Synchronous Trio gave a riveting performance of Morton Feldman’s Four Songs to e. e. cummings (1951) and at the end of the festival, the Damocles Trio performed Two Rags (1991) by John Novacek, a tongue-in-cheek circus romp that left most of the audience on their feet in applause but myself with drunken perspective in a kind of David Lynch-ian bewilderment.

LIVEWIRE generated several discussions that are new to us and products of our 21st century society; being creative in the current state of copyright, as Danger Mouse’s Grey Album exposed and the roles and implications of our ever-evolving technologies  – like the Electromagnetically Prepared Piano – to new music and performance.  And ironically, the same day as the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rallies next door in Washington to protest the decades increasing political extremism, it seemed fitting that the LIVEWIRE festival – showcasing the same decade in music – would manifest a similar partisan extremism when it became more and more apparent that each music clique – from composers to DJs and improvisers to concert-performers – grew notably polarized. Perhaps we can take a cue from Stewart and Colbert and hope to accept the intersection of all the creative music trajectories.

  1. What More Can I Say? / Danger Mouse from The Grey Album (self-released, 2004)
  2. Elsewhere is a Negative Mirror (excerpt) / Per Bloland
  3. Four Songs to e. e. cummings: III (1951) / Morton Feldman as performed by The Barton Workshop from Morton Feldman: Voices & Instruments (Mode, 2002)
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