The Bassoons of Chernobyl

Mar 13th, 2014 | By | Category: Sounds
Abandoned cafe near Chernobyl.

Abandoned cafe near Chernobyl.


As a rule, the bassoon seldom gets love.  This largest of woodwinds is often relegated to the vague middle ground of a full orchestra, but any note of obscurity failed to deter Tom Dempster in his Alumni Concert at UNCG on Feb. 27.  “This is the last piece I composed as a student here,” began Dempster as he prepared a five course meal of food-for-thought in his experimental concert, “so it seems appropriate to open with this.”  Glass Ghosts has already become a ghost itself.  Composed in the waning months of 2002 when the invasion of Iraq was hot in the air, his first piece captured the ominous notes of an uncertain future, which is already now our past.

Starting with traditional bassoon playing, the plaintive sound of the instrument was quickly accompanied by Dempster’s own electronic music, though that word might be a misnomer for these sparse and ambient sounds jangling into the formation of jazz.  Winding itself back to the theme or inspiration, Glass Ghosts ended with what can only be called a funeral dirge, the electronic tracks stepping back for the live acoustic performance.

Classical music and instruments are often considered relics of an increasingly elderly fan base or at best a niche role as an adventurous act for a metropolitan bar.  Dempster took his concept of composition into a rather different sphere with his video and sound installation, …the red hills of Georgia… a combination of fragmentary video footage of the civil rights era were woven with vocal distortions of words from three different speakers across the political spectrum of the day alongside less identifiable sounds.  The video itself was plucked and pulled like the strings of an instrument, with images often flashing incongruously as their replacements jerked across the screen unsteadily.  The composer displayed his prowess more convincingly in his second video installation 10 Roentgens, a title that refers to the maximum amount of radiation the human organism is thought to be able to withstand sublethally.

Despite the Fukushima nuclear disaster continuing to spread uncontrollable amounts of radiation across the northern hemisphere, the issue of the atom is inexplicably of little concern to most people.  Beginning with footage from our own day, specifically Ann Coulter speaking to Fox anchor Bill O’Reily about how many Americans would see their health be benefited by increased exposure to radiation, 10 Roentgens mainly utilized clips from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, overlapping with the heart of the Cold War.  Early tests from the American southwest were mixed with numerous images of the famed Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, often in ghoulish juxtaposition.  A gas mask might be taken from one clip of video and interpolated onto the face of someone who is seemingly enjoying the display of a harnessed atom exploding in the American desert.  The video itself was visually challenging, with static-like effects and scarcely intelligible sound effects at certain points, but the overall punch of the work was impossible to ignore.

The remaining pieces offered by Dempster, currently an Assistant Professor at the South Carolina State University, were both audio-only.  Contact Clusters offered a curious experiment into the sound of the G string of the violin.  After composing works with up to 16 channels, the more modest provision of four channels was chosen.  Just as stereophonic sound allows two different sets of sounds come from one’s right and left speaker, this diversity of sound was doubled to four separate streams.  The focus of the sound moved from one speaker to the next in no intuitively discernible order, though a sum total of the plucking, tapping and manipulation of this string added up to an aesthetically pleasing experience, particularly if the house lights had been dimmed to allow the audience to escape into their mind rather than stare at the head of hair in front of them.    It is unfortunate that musicians and home entertainment systems have not experimented with four channel audio, as this obviously offers a wealth of new possibilities in the music of any genre.

The bassoon was returned to center stage for his final performance of the evening. Ahalugisdi unole is Cherokee for “to quiet the wind.”  Dempster drew his inspiration by a painting by America Meredith centering on a lonely bear singing in the forest.  Combining both his acoustic performance utilizing ‘extended technique’ that elicits from the bassoon a wider range of possible sounds alongside electronic variations, the composer sought to render to the audience both a bear and her forest.  The resulting music was at times perfectly suited to a subdued science fiction movie and served as a gentle meditative conclusion to an evening of intellectually challenging experimental art across and between several media.


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