New music is known for its exploration of sound, often with the use of electronics. There is no more formidable ensemble devoted to this concept than Wet Ink. This collective of composers and instrumentalists will perform on Friday at EMPAC, the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center.
“It’s state of the moment,” said Sam Pluta, who refers to himself as a laptop soloist although he started his music career as a singer before he began composing for computer in his senior year in college. “Electronics is still in its infancy. I take the sound from a real acoustic instrument and manipulate it and make it musical. It’s almost symbiotic.”
Composers have been experimenting with electronics since the 1950s by using taped sound, but it could sometimes take up to a year to formulate a piece, he said. Equipment was also too burdensome to cart to a job.
By the 1970s, people who played synthesizers, which were like small portable pianos and could create the sounds of almost any instrument, began appearing on gigs and putting acoustic players out of jobs — something musician unions weren’t too happy about.
The interest in electronics held for another 20 years and then seemed to stalemate until the 2000s, when technology sprinted forward and changed everything, Pluta said.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
WHERE: EMPAC, 110 8th St., Troy
HOW MUCH: $18
MORE INFO: 276-3921, empac.rpi.edu
“The size of my setup now, except for the speakers, is in two suitcases. I can bring these and play anywhere in the world,” he said. “I have to write software to do a concert live, but because I can get more gigs, I’m better about what I do. I get to use all my fingers on an iPad and computers now can get more expressive.”
While Pluta is busy working the electronics, the other members of Wet Ink are playing their acoustic instruments. They are flutist Erin Lesser, vocalist Kate Soper, saxophonist Alex Mincek, pianist Eric Wubbels, violinist Joshua Modney and percussionist Ian Antonio.
Local audiences may recognize the last two musicians, as both are from the Capital District. Modney’s dad, Jim, is the publicist for Friends of Chamber Music, and Antonio’s father, John, conducts the Empire State Youth Orchestra’s Repertory Percussion Ensemble. Although a musician need not be a composer to be a member of Wet Ink, the current members all have composition degrees from Columbia University, said Pluta, who joined five years ago.
Lesser and Mincek are charter members of Wet Ink, which formed 15 years ago when both were attending the Manhattan School of Music. Later, when Mincek began graduate work at Columbia University, the ensemble took on its current method of having its members collaborate on pieces by writing, improvising and preparing a work over time. Eventually, Wet Ink became two ensembles: one is a septet and the other can expand through freelance musicians into as large an ensemble as needed.
Based in New York City, the septet has toured the United States and recently returned from a festival in Switzerland, had several residencies, and recently released its second disc, “Relay” (Carrier Records), which they recording during a residency at EMPAC in 2012.
Premieres on program
Friday’s program will include works by Wubbels, Soper and Pluta, and two world premieres: one by Mincek and the other by Peter Ablinger. Mincek’s “Of Concentric Circles” blends sine waves and electronics. A sine wave is a tone’s fundamental without overtones. Combining them with electronics creates a pulsating effect, Pluta said.
Wubbels’ “katachi, part I” explores the intricate counterpoint of sound as it’s transmitted through the ensemble. The word katachi is Japanese for the posture of a body. As a flute plays one tone, another instrument will try to play what that note’s sound or timbre sounds like, and that continues through the other instruments.
In Soper’s “cipher,” she will first do a duet with Modney and then others by using the sounds of words and their literal meaning and layering those with music to hear how they complement and contradict. Texts will be from Jenny Holzer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Pietro Bembo, and Sigmund Freud.
“It’s very exciting music,” Pluta said.
Pluta’s “Broken Symmetries” will have the audience submerged in sound by surrounding them with speakers to create a wall of tone.
“It will mostly be loud consonant chords to create a sonic world,” he said. “The piano and piccolo will be in rhythmic unison and the saxophone and percussion will trigger each other.”
Peter Ablinger’s “Book of Returns” is a set of 40-second miniatures re-arranged in any order. Some are solos, others are duos or trios and some repeat.
Audiences who are not familiar with this style of music can tell if a piece is successful if it sounds well thought-out and has a solid construction that may be intricate and detailed but progresses, Pluta said.
On the frontier
While electronics may not be for everyone, he said that was all right.
“Electronics are the frontier,” he said. “I’m interested in creating new relationships between instruments and electronics and changing how people think about music, about listening and about composing.”
Although he doesn’t want traditional instruments to disappear and loves the human connection, he said manipulating sound electronically is not a cerebral pursuit.
“It’s incredibly physical and visceral,” he said. “It’s like a religion when I’m performing.”