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2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival Review: ‘Imaginary Music’ by PhEAD at the Philadelphia Art Alliance

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A one-night-only multimedia concert that paired Minimalist music–a movement that originated in downtown New York in the 1960s–with visual imagery and current digital technology, Imaginary Music by PhEAD (the Philadelphia Electro-Acoustic Duet) engaged and challenged the ears, eyes, and mind. Founded earlier this year by Andrew Litts and Ryan Olivier, PhEAD’s first joint effort and Fringe Festival premiere included selections of the musicians/composers’ own experimental works, along with their new “video arrangements” of two seminal pieces by icons of the genre: Morton Feldman’s “Palais de Mari” (1986); and Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” (1972).

Ryan Olivier and Andrew Litts. Photo by Sean Olivier.

Ryan Olivier and Andrew Litts. Photo by Sean Olivier.

The full-length program opened with short original compositions created individually by the two artists, each under eight minutes long, all dating from 2008-2016, and employing a range of live keyboard and trumpet, laptops, iPads, and computer, and stereo audio and video playbacks. Preceding each piece, the artists, who are also professional educators, gave introductory comments to explain the idea and process behind it—a very important contextualization for an abstract form of conceptual art, and an effective way to create an intimate and welcoming atmosphere for the audience.

Consistent throughout the performance was a fusion of PhEAD’s avant-garde music not only with art and tech, but also with the scientific theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. As the duo’s digitized notes reverberated and the layers of sound overlapped, they created a sense of three-dimensionality and movement, back and forth, in and out, in a time/space continuum; as the beats changed unexpectedly, they evoked the random behavior of the sub-atomic components of matter. In so doing, PhEAD endowed the intangible abstraction of music with imagined physical form.

Litts, in “Overcoming Inertia,” expressed with stereo audio playback a sense of time ticking away, while stuck in a rut and unable to get going. In “Prologue” (from “Electroacoustic Études”), he took a more free-form improvisational approach (in his own words, “just making things up!”), layering competing sounds and tempos, reiterations and counterpoints. In “Tune U.P.” and “TriSiCle,” Olivier coordinated the frequency of the pitch and the tempo of the music with visual patterns on a background projection screen, revealing a correspondence between sight and sound. Through video playbacks in “Distance” and “Colorful Movements” he demonstrated the similar techniques of artists and musicians, adding together small building blocks (of shapes and colors, or notes) to create an entire composition.

PhEAD’s 20-minute homage to Feldman’s slow and gentle “Palais de Mari” (one of his last and shortest works) combined computer-generated visuals by Olivier with Litts on live acoustic piano. Just as the soft held notes of the music enveloped the audience, so did the imagery of spinning and floating geometric shapes, illuminated from different angles against a black background; the sound seemed suspended in time and the forms in space. The program concluded with Olivier and Litts employing their hands as percussion instruments in Reich’s “Clapping Music.” They began out of synch, with each clapping to a different beat (Olivier’s remained the same throughout, Litts’ was ever changing), and ended with them coming together in the same tempo. As with many of PhEAD’s other pieces, the rhythms were reflected in patterns of lines on the video screen, giving visual form to what is intrinsically aural.  

Ryan Olivier and Andrew Litts. Photo by Sean Olivier.

Ryan Olivier and Andrew Litts. Photo by Sean Olivier.

While Imaginary Music presents a highly intelligent synthesis of the arts with science and technology, it offers an equally lofty aesthetic of transcendent beauty; it is at once cerebral and emotive, intellectual and hypnotic. If you missed PhEAD’s appearance in the Fringe, be sure to look for upcoming events by this provocative duo.

Running Time: Approximately One hour and 40 minutes, including one intermission.

Imaginary Music played Friday, September 23, 2016, performing at Philadelphia Art Alliance – 251 South 18th Street, in Philadelphia, PA.

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BEST OF THE 2016 PHILADELPHIA FRINGE!

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Listen to the audio musical highlights.

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