Soundscapes of storms and strata enthrall in Sonic Topographies

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      Sonic Topographies

      A Vancouver New Music presentation. At the Orpheum Annex on Thursday, October 16. No remaining performances

      I’m not ashamed to say that I almost fell asleep during the first night of Vancouver New Music’s Sonic Topographies festival, but boredom wasn’t the cause. Call it, instead, a case of conditioned response.

      Ever since I was a kid, my preferred reaction to storms has been to sleep them out—and the Alaskan tempest that inspired John Luther Adams’s Ilimaq must have been a doozy. The 45-minute-long percussion showpiece begins with a blustery cannonade from a bass drum before moving into a hailstorm of tuned tom-toms and a gale of icy cymbals; surrounding soloist Scott Deal’s nonstop stickwork, field recordings from an Arctic winter, amplified to the point of distortion, assault the ears. At home, I would have quickly crawled under a duvet—but in the concert hall Deal’s intensity and Adams’s intelligence kept sleep at bay.

      It would be misleading to say that the piece is a simple transcription of a storm. Ilimaq also incorporates allusions to the industrial and the pre-industrial world; I heard big helicopters in its first movement and First Nations drum rhythms in its second. But the weather is the constant: it was here before the first immigrants brought their walrus-skin boats eastward from Siberia, and it will be here long after the last oil extractors decamp.

      A similar sense of connection with natural processes permeated much of Sonic Topographies’ first night. As curated by VNM artistic director Giorgio Magnanensi, the festival examines music that draws on the land and the landscape, that places man-made sound within a matrix of the “natural”, or that extracts music from the overlooked entities that normally operate beyond our field of vision and our range of hearing. The connections could be tangential, as in local luminary Hildegard Westerkamp’s Liebes-Lied/Love Song, or explicit, as in New Zealand–born Annea Lockwood’s Jitterbug, but they were always present, and they brought a feeling of expansiveness to the entire program.

      Westerkamp’s piece is hardly wild: household sounds and human voices declaiming Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry make up much of the electroacoustic soundscape, along with cellos both recorded (Anne Bourne) and live (Peggy Lee). More civilized music would be hard to imagine—but there was a power here in the strength of the feelings being expressed, and in Lee’s intuitive, improvised response to the recorded material. In Jitterbug, on the other hand, free-range aquatic beetles taped on location in Montana provided a surprisingly synthetic-sounding backdrop for three wild humans—Lee, pianist Lisa Cay Miller, and trumpeter JP Carter—who crafted thick strata of interactive sound in response to some unlikely “scores”: large photographs of beautifully striped and striated rocks.

      Sonic Topographies opened with even more rock music: Japanese sound sculptor Akio Suzuki, a latter-day sage in skullcap, tapping a small stone against a larger one in his hand. These proved strangely expressive instruments, with a two-octave range further augmented by the changing acoustics as Suzuki walked around the room. He then went on to work low-tech magic with a pair of metal cans attached by a long, thin spring, singing into or rubbing one can, or stroking and hitting the spring, to achieve the kind of deep-space noises normally thought of as “electronic music”.

      Suzuki’s brief, playful set was a warm introduction to a wild weekend of exploratory sound.