Lincoln Center Fest #3: Electronic Evolutions

Program includes works written from the 1950s to the 1990s.

NEW YORK — Past, present and future directions in electronic music were showcased in the third installment of the Lincoln Center Festival's "Electronic Evolution" series on Friday.

Set in the towering marble rotunda of Columbia University's Low Library, the concert traced the evolution of multichannel tape music, from the heyday of the magnetic tape and serialist techniques in the 1950s to compositions shaped by digital technology in the 1980s and '90s. Featured were works by Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Dennis Smalley, Jean-Baptiste Barriere and Paul Lansky.

The concert was prefaced by a fascinating exhibit of interactive multimedia installations by student composers at the Columbia University Computer Music Center. Also on display in the library gallery space was an exhibition of electronic music equipment from the early days of Columbia's research facilities.

Beneath the 130-foot dome and the imposing classical columns of the library rotunda, a large and enthusiastic audience sat surrounded by loudspeakers and opposite a large video screen that provided real-time visual counterparts to several pieces.

The program opened with Varèse's Poème électronique, the epochal multimedia work composed for 400 loudspeakers at the Phillips pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Reconstructed here for more modest resources, this taped montage of vocal, instrumental and electronically generated noises was accompanied by equally abstract and peculiar projected images of people, animals and various shapes.

Another pioneering work featured was Stockhausen's 1956 Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of Youths), for five-track tape and five groups of loudspeakers. The piece eerily mixes the sounds of a boy soprano with electronically generated sounds. While rather dated, it made for a striking contrast to Lansky's Night Traffic (1990), a New Age mix of highway sounds and mists of shifting chords.

The concert's second half featured two computer-based compositions from the early 1980s: Barriere's Chréode, a four-track work using computer simulations of the human voice, and Smalley's Vortex, based on the principle of synthesizing natural, acoustic sounds. Both pieces were accompanied by complex visual representations, although they did little to compensate for the ascetic, rambling quality of the music.

In contrast, the 20 minutes of pulseless trance in Xenakis' Bohor (1962) was especially compelling when joined to an array of swirling, psychedelic imagery.

Prior to the concert, the audience was invited to wander through displays of multimedia installations by six up-and-coming student composers. Here, people pushed buttons, sang into a microphone, clicked on a mouse, banged on an electronic drum pad and otherwise manipulated the music's parameters.

The installations and concert posed the question of how better to engage an audience: surround them in a mass of sound and images, or give them free reign to control the musical results themselves?