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Guest composer Jonathan Berger (from left), violinist Helen Hwaya Kim, violinist Adelaide Federici, cellist Brad Ritchie and violist William Johnston at the Academy of Medicine. (Photo by Terry E. Kearns)

Sonic Generator, the professional music-and-technology ensemble in residence at Georgia Tech, performed this past Tuesday at the newly restored Academy of Medicine. The concert, open to the public, was part of the 2012 International Conference on Auditory Display, the world’s top gathering of researchers and practitioners in the use of sound as communicative display.

If the terms “communicative display” and “auditory display” seem head-scratchingly unfamiliar, some simple examples convey the gist: the “ding” alert when the timer on a microwave oven reaches zero, or the surly “beep” a computer might make to signal that, once again, a human has made an error. A more sophisticated example is the hair-raising crackle of a Geiger counter, a sound made familiar by sci-fi movies of the 1950s, which came to aurally symbolize the decade’s social undercurrent of techno-dread in an atomic age.

“Auditory display, at its essence, is about using sound to convey information,” says Jason Freeman, Sonic Generator’s executive director and an associate professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Music. That basic premise helped inform the choice of repertoire for the evening.

Violist William Johnston, in his first performance with Sonic Generator, opened the show with “Viola Elegy” by Charles Dodge, composed for viola and computer-synthesized tape using fractal mathematics. The haunting electronics accompany the viola for most of the work’s 16-minute duration but eventually dissolve away, leaving the viola alone and unaccompanied at the end. Johnston’s richly lyrical tone and expressive playing communicated a depth of human lament amid the anempathetic landscape of ethereal, metallic timbres.

Next in line was “Chirping Stars,” a finalist in ICAD’s Sonification Contest this year, created by a trio of composers: Katharina Vogt, Visda Goudarzi and Robert Höldrich. “Chirping Stars” is pre-recorded audio built using social media data from Twitter, MySpace and BitTorrent that focuses on eight popular musical acts: Bruno Mars, Chris Brown, Coldplay, David Guetta, Drake, Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Snoop Dog. The data were used to manipulate audio from the artists’ original soundtracks, resulting in a great cloud of sound devoted to the vicissitudes of stardom. The piece was fascinating as reinterpretation of data, an interesting first-time hearing, but certainly not destined for Billboard’s Top 100. 

Steve Reich‘s “Piano Phase” followed, not in its original version for two pianos, but a later version Reich composed for two marimbas. It was his first attempt at applying his “phasing technique” to live performance rather than pre-recorded audio tape. A repeated sequence of 12 notes is subjected to a process of coordinated but independent tempo changes in each part. Percussionists Charles Settle and Stuart Gerber wowed the audience with their virtuosic control of the shifting temporal relationships between their respective parts.

The concert concluded with a work for string quartet, “Doubles” by Jonathan Berger. The title refers to a 17th-century practice of composing a short movement followed by an ornate variation of itself. The piece references the composer’s memories of peace, freedom and resistance protest songs of his youth, if often only obscurely. Among them are “Carry It On,” “Hold On,” “Which Side Are You On?” and the Spanish Civil War song “Fifth Brigade.”

Violinists Helen Hwaya Kim and Adelaide Federici, violist Johnston and cellist Brad Ritchie brought to the substantially tense 20-minute work an extroverted, vigorous performance. Berger was present, joining the musicians onstage for applause at the end.

Finally, there was the Academy of Medicine itself, at the corner of Seventh and West Peachtree streets, a historic example of “Neo-Classical Revival” architecture, designed by famed Atlanta architect Philip Trammell Shutze. It was built in 1941, during the style’s final years of popularity in non-residential building design. In 2008 Georgia Tech bought the building, and after 18 months of extensive restoration it was reopened last December 15, its 70th anniversary.

For percussionist Gerber, the freshly refurbished academy and its 230-seat theater was a real discovery. “I didn’t even realize this was here,” he said admiringly, noting how far back the building is set from busy West Peachtree Street. The theater, though originally designed for lectures, proved an excellent, much-welcomed space for performing chamber music.

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