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Reviewed by:
  • The Bifurcators, with "Blue" Gene Tyranny: Like a Bird in the Wilderness
  • Meg Schedel
The Bifurcators, with "Blue" Gene Tyranny: Like a Bird in the Wilderness Compact disc, Artifact AR121, 2002; available from Artifact Recordings; Web

Like a Bird in the Wilderness was written specifically for pianist/composer "Blue" Gene Tyranny by The Bifurcators, the duo of Philip Perkins and Scott Fraser. Inspired by Wallace Steven's poem "Of Mere Being," the music is a response to stanzas about a gold-feathered bird singing in the palm "without human meaning, without human feeling, a foreign song." The CD is not without human feeling, on the contrary it is filled with familiar emotions. Capturing a 38-minute improvisation between Mr. Tyranny on the piano and two computers running Max, the recording sings its foreign song created by the combination of acoustic and electronic instruments.

Mr. Tyranny has such a liquid playing style; every mood and passing impulse floats across his music like a bird in flight. The reverberation on the piano gives it an intimate yet otherworldly feel, but the layer of electronic sound is missing a dimension of expressiveness. The Max patches trigger samplers and synthesizers in response to five pre-determined tone rows; the responses are musical in terms of timing and pitch, but the timbres are grating. I realize this was produced in 1997 using MIDI keyboards and samplers, but that is no excuse for the mediocre electronic timbres. If equal care had been lavished on programming the Max patch and the synthesizer patches the result would have been glorious, but as it stands Like a Bird in the Wilderness embodies a woeful disparity between the sounds of the piano and the sounds of the synthesizers. The electronic sounds are, however, environmentally conscious—notes are recycled without variation in volume or timbre. The contrast with Mr. Tyranny's evocative and refined improvisation is disheartening, especially because the electronic elements could have easily been a welcome addition to the piano part. The conception behind the electronic component is solid; the realization is unfortunately poor.

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The first half of the recording consists largely of intrusive synthesizer patches competing with an introspective piano part. The drum sounds are especially disturbing—they seem lifeless and don't appear to be in the same acoustic space as the piano and other electronics. The rest of the electronic sounds are mundane, but one sound in particular verges on the obnoxious: an obtrusive buzzing sound that is much louder than anything else on the recording. The first time I heard it I thought my CD player had malfunctioned; sadly, this sound returns again and again. This interruption may have been purposely programmed to create variety, but there is no analogous response in the piano. The buzz becomes a farcical [End Page 97] annoyance rather than musically sensitive counterpoint.

There are lovely moments on the recording. These usually occur when the electronic sounds embellish the piano instead of competing with it. Gorgeous shimmering textures are created when multiple MIDI bells are layered on top of tremolos in the piano. When piano attacks correspond precisely with the start of electronic sounds, the MIDI synthesizers color the piano, widening Mr. Tyranny's already extensive musical vocabulary. He adapts well to his new language, calming the electronic flourishes down when they are hectic, adding more interest in the piano as the computer slows, working the interactive system to its full advantage.

The last eight minutes of the improvisation are without a doubt my favorite of the entire set. I may trim the track down and keep it in an iTunes playlist alongside Harold Budd for those meditative listening sessions at 1 a.m. The sampled guitar overlaid on Mr. Tyranny's piano filigree is especially moving, the electronics here are finally on equal expressive footing with the piano. At minute 31, lovely organ vibratos blend effortlessly with the piano, and every time I hear it the hairs on the back of my neck quiver in response. The last minutes are also the only time that bass frequencies play an important role: trailing scales lead the pitches down...


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pp. 97-98
Launched on MUSE
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