Last night the Concert Hall of the Community Music Center hosted the first of the five concerts on successive evenings that will constitute the Sixteenth Annual Outsound New Music Summit. The first set was taken by the Usufruct duo of Polly Moller (flutist and vocalist, composer and improviser) and computer musician Tim Walters. The program book was kind enough to explain that the name of the group is a legal term denoting “the right of the people to harvest the fruits of common property.”
This was a coy way of explaining that the Usufruct aesthetic is one of appropriation in which appropriated content is deconstructed into fragments (not all of which are readily recognizable) and reassembled. The reassembly process involves both improvisation and notated charts. The set itself broke down into a series of distinguishable segments, each of which was probably an individual composition. Nevertheless, the ordering provided some suggestion that those pieces were part of an overall structure for the entire set.
The way in which the Usufruct aesthetic was put into practice was probably most clearly demonstrated towards the end of the set, which saw Moller declaiming words in isolation separated by long pauses against a “wash” provided by Walters’ electronic sources. As more and more words were uttered, the listener gradually appreciated that they had all been extracted from Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The words gradually gave way to phrases, but the overall text registered only through these faint suggestions.
Was this intended as a suggestion of deterioration? Earlier in the set Moller had given what seemed to be a similar treatment to the legal code concerned with the disclosure of material classified for the sake of national security. Her style of declamation involved intensity with sinister overtones. However, the deconstruction of the source text suggested a speaker whose command of coherence was, at best, minimal. I am sure that any references of a Head of State with similar problems of incoherence was purely coincidental!
As an instrumentalist Moller alternated between flute and bass flute. In this case her approach to fragmentation offered few clues as to what her sources may have been, which was probably what she intended. Of greater interest was how her fragments could be captured and transformed through Walters’ software. Thus, what began as isolated fragments gradually grew into richly elaborate passages of counterpoint that combined Moller’s solo work with the results of Walters’ transforms. Because Moller played into a microphone, the music, as such, existed by virtue of the speaker system; and one could readily enjoy the ambiguity of which of the sounds were “live” and which were coming from Walters’ laptop.
Moller’s vocal work included song as well as declaiming text. There was considerable diversity in her approaches to vocalizing, suggesting the same scope of diversity that one encounters among those numbered pieces that John Cage identified as “Solo for Voice.” (The presence of computer-based sounds meant that Moller’s work was not, strictly speaking, solo, but neither were some of Cage’s “Solos.”) Moller’s delivery also shared with Cage the premise that singing can involve calculated theatrical delivery. Indeed, there was often an ambiguity as to whether the act of singing entailed dramatic action or vice versa. This made for “song work” that kept the listener guessing as to where content had originated and where it would be going.
This extensive diversity in Moller’s approaches to performance made for a thoroughly engaging set that definitely got this summer’s New Music Summit off to a rousing start.