Back in 1931, Henry Cowell asked Lev Termen [aka Leon Theremin] to build him a musical instrument capable of playing the sorts of complex overtones and rhythms that Cowell was working with at the time. The two of them came up with the Rhythmicon, a keyboard instrument a bit like an electric organ with a catch. Using sets of rotating optical discs inside the instrument all the keys were set up to play repeated tones, which were related in pitch and rhythm to one another according to the proportions of the overtone series. Very much a Cowell sort of idea it proved too unreliable to really take off as a concert instrument, but in 2003 American Public Media commissioned an online version for its American Mavericks website and radio show. The Virtual Rhythmicon – a greatly enhanced extrapolation of the original concept – has been online since then, and anyone can play around and submit the results to the American Mavericks archive. Mind you, I’ve had a good muck around on it and I’ve not produced anything that comes close to what’s on this album, so it’s not to be underestimated.
By the nature of the instrument, the nine tracks on The Art of the Virtual Rhythmicon are all built around sustained synth tones, wave forms, pulse patterns and the like, but with a notable emotional range. Schaefer’s work is a lush meditation paradoxically titled ‘All Bombing is Terrorism’, Gosfield deftly blends buzzing sawtooth waves with sweeping cello harmonics. Philip Blackburn samples a quarter-tone piano duet by Mildred Couper to evoke the concert where both her compositions and the rhythmicon were heard for the first time, while Jeff Feddersen samples Cowell’s voice over music designed to push the limits of the virtual rhythmicon to sonic breaking point. Burtner’s two contributions are dedications to his new-born son and his parents’ 60th birthday, producing rich sound worlds that belie their origins in simple algorithms, and Viv Corringham mixes her own voice, using everyday objects as resonators, over jangly, brassy blasts from the rhythmicon.
The two final tracks step furthest from the pure overtone beats of the rhythmicon medium. Mark Eden’s ‘Cremation Science’ is a Warhol-inspired pop collage, but the real gem of the whole disc is the final track, Robert Normandeau’s awesome ‘Chorus’, dedicated to the victims of 9/11. Using sound materials intended to represent Judaism (shofar), Christianity (bells) and Islam (muezzin), it’s a brooding concrete slab of a work in which menace, frustration, scratchy anxiety and spiritual profundity are all held in balance for a draining 15 minutes. No one would blame you for buying the CD for this piece alone – and you’d be in luck because the rest of the disc isn’t far behind in interest.
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