In last night’s program of electronic improvisations at the Center for New Music, the second set was taken by the duo of Tim Perkis and Carter Scholz. Scholz was at the piano for the first two of the three pieces they played, while the final piece was all electronic. What may have been most interesting was that, while all of the synthesis came from laptops, all of the controls were analog. This should not be too surprising. Improvisation is as much a physical undertaking as an auditory one; and potentiometers and patch cords lend themselves to that physicality far more readily than a keyboard, mouse, or touch-sensitive panel.
Indeed, what may have been most interesting about Perkis’ work was his intense focus on almost minuscule movements. This contrasted sharply with Scholz’ activities in the first two numbers, when he was pretty much literally all over his piano. Indeed, the one place where he did not approach the instrument was from below, such as by striking the lower side of the sounding board. It also seemed as if the piano interior had been prepared prior to the first observation, but Scholz kept working with different objects in there. The wittiest of these was a toy that bounced around the strings of its own accord, a delightful reminder that one need not be dead serious about improvising, even when electronics are involved.
Nevertheless, when Scholz turned to electronics for the final selection, he tended to share Perkis’ technique of minimizing activity. Both of them were impressive in their capacity to listen sensitively to both themselves and each other. Thus, while the sonorities that played out tended towards a bold rhetorical stance, the activities of both players suggested that they were having a very intimate conversation. Consequently, the simultaneous experience of seeing and listening turned out to be a somewhat bipolar (but far from pathological) one.
The nature of interaction between electronics and piano, on the other hand, recalled some of the early experiments of Karlheinz Stockhausen. However, this was when Stockhausen was working with tape and through-composing scores for the pianist that demanded highly detailed interplay between the two sound sources. It was thus fascinating to think how all of that meticulous attention to pre-programmed detail half a century ago has now blossomed into the rich outpourings of spontaneous, but still well-considered, improvisation.