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Review: Sonic Generator goes to extremes with Philip Glass, Milton Babbitt and a robot musician

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Although Sonic Generator is Georgia Tech’s contemporary music ensemble-in-residence, the group is starting to seem like a house band at the Woodruff Arts Center. This partnership might be a good strategy for SG’s long-term survival, especially as the state’s budget for education is trimmed. And it’s been good for Atlanta’s classical music scene, which benefits from more cross-pollination and a greater emphasis on living composers at the city’s premier temple of culture.

The links are organic. Tech professor and composer Jason Freeman is SG’s executive director, and most of the musicians are from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s orbit, led by percussionist Tom Sherwood and flutist Jessica Peek Sherwood, who are Sonic Generator’s artistic directors. And the partnership will continue to grow: the arts center, which donates performance space, will host SG’s contemporary music marathon this summer.

Sonic Generator closed its fifth season Wednesday in the Woodruff’s Rich Auditorium with enticing recent works and, notably, music that spanned some of the most heated controversies of the late 20th century. But the fires have cooled enough that, today, nobody is riled up that music by arch-serialist Milton Babbitt shares a program with Minimalist hero Philip Glass — although a generation ago there would have been fistfights in the aisles over this pairing. But the evening’s newer works held more in-the-moment intrigue.

Georgia Tech's Shimon, an improvising marimba player.

Gil Weinberg is director of music technology at Georgia Tech, and his various robotic musicians have been featured in other Sonic Generator concerts. Weinberg (and grad students Ryan Nikolaidis and Yingjia Liu) presented Shimon, a robot and Atlanta-based free-lance marimba player, who’s programmed to improvise alongside a human musician.

First Shimon made music off visual cues from percussionist Sherwood, who did what looked liked tai chi as Shimon’s camera eye, mounted on a roving robotic arm, scanned his motions. Then Sherwood picked up his own mallets, hammered out a theme on an electronic MalletKAT (Shimon played an acoustic marimba), and the duo began improvising, gaining in rhythmic and harmonic complexity among the way. The piece was called “Bafana” and was inspired by the repetitive rhythms of African marimba bands. Just as electronic brains have excelled at chess and “Jeopardy!,” Shimon is advancing the more subtle elements of musicianship: the cues that musicians give one another.

Randall Woolf’s “Everything Is Green,” from 2003, initially seems like a novelty item but gains in substance until it’s heartbreaking. A prerecorded narrator (Rinde Eckert) tells David Foster Wallace’s story of a middle-aged man whose younger girlfriend has cheated and checked out of the relationship. There’s an ambient wash of sound behind the narration, and two live musicians, flutist Sherwood and pianist Tim Whitehead, play what’s inside the man’s psyche. Woolf’s music is spiced with barbecue — the story is set in a trailer park — and twanged with country-western accents. As the story grows bleak and a happy resolution becomes unlikely, the music briefly turns ugly and dissonant, then dissipates into passive emptiness. The music fades to white, as if we were staring at the blank page at the end of a book, still processing the story we’ve just read and not wanting to put it down.

Walt Whitman called the English language “brawny enough and limber,” and he believed that a poet writing in English “can make every word he speaks draw blood.” Taking that mindset several steps further, California sound poet Charles Amirkhanian creates music where words are percussion notes. In “Church Car,” from 1980, percussionist Sherwood said the words “church car” and a prerecorded tape repeated the words in a dense thicket of counterpoint. Repeated “car” and “bang” and “box car” and “kumquat/loquat” — layer upon layer — gives the music a hip-hop groove. It was also amusing, as when a naughty younger brother annoys his big sister by repeating everything she says until she’s infuriated. Sherwood got laughs and big applause for his spoken-word virtuosity.

French-American composer Daniel Wohl

Daniel Wohl’s “+ ou –” (“plus or minus” in French) employs a quartet (pianist Whitehead, percussionist Sherwood, bass clarinetist Ted Gurch and cellist Brad Ritchie) accompanied by muffles and bursts of static and the sound of far-off wind or bubbles. It’s pretty, melancholy and eclectic in a post-Minimalist way. There’s a lot of tension and ambiguity across its seven minutes, and it takes the listener on an emotional, sometimes dark journey. Preparing for the concert, I found myself listening to the work repeatedly on the composer’s MySpace page. It was even more compelling in live performance.

An iconic picture of American music: Milton Babbitt at the RCA Mark II Synthesizer.

Now back to the slugging heavyweights, both of whom are already enshrined in musical history. Influential as a composer and theorist, Milton Babbitt died in January at age 94. He was known for his personal charm and bullying musical politics, in which he likened his music to theoretical physics — beyond the ability of non-specialists to comprehend. In a 1984 essay on Babbitt subtitled “The Northeastern Academic Establishment and the Romance of Science,” author John Rockwell heaped blame on the composer and other serialists, ending with a stinging rebuke: “For the now widespread belief among laymen that all new music is repellent pedantry, they have much to answer for.”

Babbitt’s New York Times obituary quoted his own description of his abstract and austere music as “maximalist,” in contrast to Glass and the Minimalists. For his part, in interviews, Glass has spoken of how his music was partly a reaction against the forbiddingly complex work of composers like Babbitt.

There was once a very clear line drawn between the composers, just as in the 19th century Brahms and Wagner were from antithetical, hostile camps. Today they’re branches of the Romantic tree. In playing Babbitt and Glass together, Sonic Generator laid the entire musical history of the 20th century to rest. That’s old-time stuff; we’re living in the present.

Joined by synthesizer tape, Gurch played alto and soprano sax for Babbitt’s “Images,” from 1979. The velvety, jazzy warmth of the saxophones contrasted with the comic-sounding (to our ears) blips! and zoinks! and shrill syntho sounds. Once you get past the dated materials — like watching vintage sci-fi special effects — the music can seem at times dyspeptic and alienating but also whimsical and gossamer. It’s completely “flat” and two-dimensional, like an Abstract Expressionist painting, with nothing for the ear to hang onto. The piece doesn’t evolve, there’s no narrative arc, and the only emotion it induces is mild paranoia. Babbitt might be our leading Cold War composer. In all, “Images” radiates a certain beauty through its strength and unyielding surfaces, like a handsomely proportioned black-glass skyscraper.

Philip Glass is a composer of the theater, and not surprisingly his best scores are paired with strong visual components, from the film “Koyaanisqatsi” to his staged operas. “Music in Similar Motion,” from 1969 and performed here by a sextet, unfolds with a bit of drama and was greatly enhanced by a video by Simon Doyle. Thousands of shots — all circular images cropped within a square — flickered at the speed of 32nd notes. It made for a delightfully jarring cognitive dissonance: the simplistic-seeming repetition of Glass’ music against the images whipping past our eyes at top speed. And with photos of Volkswagen hubcaps and the FTD Florist logo and stained glass windows and beer caps and sewer caps and the detritus of American culture injected into our brains, it felt very here and now — the mission of Sonic Generator and the Woodruff center’s ambition.

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