In the height of the popularity of electronic music, few genres truly remain devoid of its ubiquitous influence. This past Saturday, violist and member of the Lydian String Quartet, Mark Berger, demonstrated how the two seemingly polar worlds of classical instrumentation and pre-programmed electronic sound can merge together to create something new and exciting.
Though undeniably the main attraction of the concert, aptly named “Viola + Electronics,” the electronic portion of the show did not occur until after intermission. Instead, the night opened with Bach’s “Sonata No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1003,” a piece that perfectly displayed Berger’s superior musicianship and alluded to his extensive musical career. Having worked with many well-known groups such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops and the Worcester Chamber Music Society, as well as being an instructor at at Boston College and here at Brandeis, Berger harbors a skillset of experience as diverse as the pieces he performed that night. From an excerpt about the piece he first performed, Berger describes the sonatas of Bach as the “technical zenith of the entire solo string repertoire.” Originally composed for violin, Berger was impressively able to overcome the inherent shortcomings of the viola as an instrument, which oftentimes succeeds poorly when soloing in the awkward register between the clarion notes of the violin and the resonant tones of the cello.
The second song of the evening, though more abstract, was definitely one of the more, if not the most, exciting piece of the night. “Khse Buon,” by Cambodian composer Chinary Ung, is a significant piece in his repertoire, as it was his only composition from 1974 to 1985 and was written shortly after the cessation of the Cambodian genocide in 1980. “‘Khse Buon’ appears as a hopeful sentiment regarding the value of personal expression during a time when Cambodians had suffered tremendous losses,” says Adam Green, a composer and close associate to Ung. “Its voice is plaintive, full longing and unabashedly emotional.” Meaning “Four Strings” in Khmer, “Khse Buon” is a play on the one-stringed Cambodian lute, khse diev, for which the sound of the piece definitely mimicked. Featuring many aspects of string instrumentation not traditional to western music, such as slide pizzicato and natural harmonics, “Khse Buon” serves as a metaphor for the developing syncretism between the music of the west and the east, not unlike Fritz Kreisler’s “Tambourin Chinois” in the earlier half of the century. Originally written for the cello, Berger’s performance unavoidably lacked the depth of the original composition due to instrumentation alone. However, it also brought to the piece new shades of emotion not traditionally present in the lower registers.
The first two pieces that featured electronic sounds seemingly served as foils of each other, each utilizing the sounds in different and complex ways. Kaija Saariaho’s “Vent Nocturne” took a darker route tonally, as expressed by the translation of the title, “Night Wind.” Featuring a combination of real-time resonant effects of the viola and an overlaid track of many airy tones in conjunction with actual human breathing, “Vent Nocturne” was able to create ominously vivid imagery reminiscent of many horror scores. “To me the sound of the viola has always suggested that of breathing,” says Saariaho, “which, along with the wind, became a major element of the electronic part.” On the other hand, Eric Chaslow’s “The Fundamental Object” features an electronic track that more so accompanies the soloist, rather than simply providing atmosphere. More atonal than “Vent Nocturne,” what Chaslow’s piece lacks in traditional musical emotion, it makes up for with its dynamic complexity and seamless incorporation of the sporadic background music into the Berger’s own melody.
The last piece of the night, and by far the most unique was Gérard Grisey’s “Prologue for viola and live electronics.” The music of Grisey, who is often considered one of the founding composers of spectral music, is indirectly atonal, as the majority of his compositional decisions were based on the mathematical and graphical representation of sound spectra as opposed to audition. Though a spectacular performance to witness, Grisey’s sound would not withstand had the listeners not been aware of the significance of his works, which is not to say that the piece is poorly composed, but rather meant for the refined ear.
Though an interesting combination to say the least, the reason as to why “+ Electronics” was listed only as the sub-heading to “Viola” on the concert program was ever-present, as there seemed to be a considerable deficit of electronic sound for pieces that have “electronics” in their titles. Likewise, even though the viola, with its register akin to the pubescent teenager of the string family, is not the most suitable instrument for solo works, Mark Berger was able to overcome these barriers in order to perform music that he truly enjoys with a precision and tact that would make any professional jealous, or at the minimum thoroughly impressed.