It's Musical Fringe Week in Baltimore.
New music for cello and electronics filled Peabody Conservatory's Griswold Hall Tuesday night, concluding with a large dose of improvisation. It made a fortuitous, if coincidental, lead-in to High Zero - a four-day festival devoted exclusively to "experimental improvised music" opening tonight.
Tuesday's event, presented by the Peabody Computer Music Consort, offered an intermittently engaging sample of what's happening on the non-pop side of techno music. Composers have explored ways of incorporating technological advances into music for decades, but the level of sophistication keeps expanding.
Computers have made possible unlimited sonic manipulations, digital "signal-processing" that can take an emitted tone and immediately alter it in myriad ways. And the time-tested device of pre-recording sounds to provide counterpoint to live performance remains popular among those in this small field of creative endeavor.
Hugh Livingston, currently in China to study that nation's contemporary music scene, has fashioned an international career by redefining the cello "through the search for new techniques and sounds."
The results were performed for a steadily dwindling audience at Peabody.
The oldest piece, Matthew Burtner's "Incantation 1" from 1994, was the most rewarding. It's a duet for amplified cello and a tape that emits generally subtle, synthesized sounds (think plugged-in cicadas). The cello part contains lots of non-melodic sounds, but occasionally takes off on surprisingly lyrical flights that Livingston relished; the music finally dissipates into a few wispy notes. The end result is an electronic tone poem of considerable aural richness, its non-specific narrative communicating strangely alluring thoughts and emotions.
Hiroya Miura's "Save Twilight" from 1999 takes as its starting point a haiku by 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho and subtly different English and Spanish translations of it. On tape can be heard, vaguely, voices reciting the haiku, along with synthesized sounds that suggest breaking glass; the cello interacts with all of this for a long time before trailing off into another quiet ending. Perhaps Miura should have taken the brevity of haiku as a model.
David Birchfield's "Sacrilloym" from 1999 strives hard for effect, putting the cello through many contortions before still another fade-away close. It sounds academic, as does Bruce Christian Bennett's recent "Sketches," built on a plodding series of cello techniques - pizzicato, bowing, glissando, tremolo. All the while, a computer manipulates the cello to create ongoing feedback, including the predictable transformation of a slide along the strings into something like the roar of a dive bomber's engine.
Livingston's closing improvisations on his own "False Pretenses I-V" offered a similar lesson book in "extended instrumental technique," from slow-motion droning that suggested the hum of a transformer box to kinetic thumping on the cello. As he had all evening, Livingston demonstrated striking virtuosity, but his electrified soundscape ultimately lost novelty and expressive weight.
For extensive exposure to scoreless music-making, check out High Zero, which will offer 34 noted improvisers and experimenters. Sessions are at 9 tonight at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway; 9 p.m. Friday at 14 Karat Cabaret, 218 W. Saratoga St.; 12:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday at the Charles Theater, 1711 N. Charles St.; and 9 p.m. Sunday at 14 Karat Cabaret.
Tickets ($10 per session) are sold at the door or in advance at Normals Books and Records on 425 E. 31st St.