On Saturday, March 5, 2016 I attended Composer Portraits at Columbia's Miller Theatre, to hear the work of Romanian Spectralist composer, Iancu Dumitrescu. Either/Or, a New-York based contemporary music ensemble led by conductor Richard Carrick, performed the program, which consisted entirely of six world premieres. Spectral music uses computers to analyze the quality of timbre in acoustic or artificial sounds and incorporates transitory aspects of timbre and non-harmonic musical components, such as rhythm, tempo, and dynamics. The result can be something that sounds quite foreign to the average music listener.
Dumitrescu tailors each one of his scores to every new performance and set of performers, so that each presentation is unique. The particularities of the music I heard that night had been settled in rehearsal. I was very much looking forward to what I thought would be perhaps the highlight of my Composer Portraits season. Unfortunately, I could not get beyond the onslaught of painfully loud electronic interference, feedback, buzzing, and high-pitched noise emanating from two huge speakers surrounding the stage. Try as I might to enjoy what I was hearing, it literally made my ears and head hurt, and I was very tempted to walk out in order to spare myself the physical malaise.
I could not understand why this composer, who had studied composition at the music academy in Bucharest, and who clearly understood the history and form of musical composition from a lifetime of working as a musical creator, would spend his time developing a sound that I dare say most people would find difficult to endure. I decided to stick it out and stay for the interview and the remainder of the program, since this was perhaps my only opportunity, at least in the foreseeable future, to learn about Romanian Spectralism. Also, I found Richard Carrick's conducting extremely graceful, and thought it was worth staying to experience his elegant musicality.
In the interview, Dumitrescu described his music as "acousmatic," and said that in it, he discovered something more profound - a new kind of aesthetic. His program notes mentioned the dissonance in his sound: "You could say that this distortion in the sound comes from the attempt to release or unveil the god that is living in every piece of base matter." He spoke about how it has been very difficult to be accepted and how his music is still contested by academic composers who say: "This is not music. What is it?" He answered, "It's hard for me to say myself, what this is....This is music. It's another kind of thinking of music, a new perspective."
He explained that he grew up under communism and was not able to go to Paris to hear what composers were doing there, that he developed his work necessarily, in a kind of isolation from the rest of what Europe was doing at the time. Philosophically he asked, "Why am I here after 73 years? After World War II the new generation didn't want to follow folk music. They had new dreams. Although I like Romanian music, I did this instead." He explained that all of western music is based on a tuning that is essentially artificial, that when Bela Bartok researched peasant music and brought their sounds to light for the rest of us, he did something extraordinary - he exposed us to music that was "truly incredible, that had a barbaric intonation." Dumitrescu explained that we live in two acoustic worlds: the one of conventional western music and the one of this barbaric intonation, one with microintonation, multiphonics, you name it. Why should we limit ourselves?
I came away from this interview with a high level of respect for Dumitrescu, who seemed like the proverbial "real deal." He reminded me of film-maker Nick Zedd, who coined the term Cinema of Transgression to describe the kind of work he's poured his life into - a combination of grotesque, fantastical, sardonic, black humor and sociopolitical commentary that most people do not understand or appreciate. I am not sure Dumitrescu and Zedd would necessarily share the same philosophies about their work, but I do believe the two artists share a genuine authenticity towards creating art, and because of this, they represent the antithesis of the term "sell-out."
I was glad I stayed for the second half of the show, which fortunately for me, had less painfully loud electronic buzzing and more musically textured soundscapes, with hypnotic moments that cast a kind of dreamy spell. I was reminded of Dumitrescu's "attempt to release or unveil the god that is living in every piece of base matter." Gradually, this idea took shape and gave the experience coherence. The audience gave Dumitrescu an enthusiastic final round of applause. There was a sense that something unique had just happened to us all.