- Elizabeth Hoffman: Intérieurs Harmoniques
Although she has released pieces on compilations since 1995, Intérieurs Harmoniques is composer Elizabeth Hoffman's first full-length CD. It features six fine electroacoustic works realized at her New York City studio between 2001 and 2011, andmastered for this recording by Dominique Bassal. After listening to this CD it is clear that the composer is adept at juxtaposing separate timbral layers, related through various processing techniques, into kaleidoscopic collage forms. These pieces, unified through [End Page 99] conceptual or abstract exploration, are firmly situated within the acousmatic tradition.
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According to the composer's liner notes, Resonants, the first piece in this collection, presents an "aural puzzle" in which the sounds "seem to be both activated and self-activating." The listener is pulled between what she calls "reduced listening" and "source sound listening" (Pierre Schaeffer's terms). I take reduced listening to mean a focused type of listening in which one notices subtle changes of timbre, as if listening to an object close-up. In Resonants one hears readily identifiable objects such as cymbals or bells, often manipulated via amplitude modulation. The collage form favored by the composer is one in which distinct material layers sound simultaneously in juxtaposition. For example, repeated groups of percussive sounds in the foreground are placed against a drone backdrop. But the effect is so much more than mere juxtaposition since Hoffman's layers shift in and out of perceptual focus, which she achieves through careful changes of amplitude and spatial trajectory. Nothing is static in this piece. Sounds morph from one extreme timbre to another. This is evident when about a third of the way into the piece a low, rumbling timpani-like sound changes into a brittle swarm of insects. All of this culminates, at the golden section, into a poignant moment where a highly resonant, low-pitch drone comes into the foreground, followed by drum-like sounds that serve to mark this moment while also supplanting it. Resonants is a continuous, through-composed piece, though materials are obviously reused and transformed. During the last 40 seconds or so the texture finally thins out, revealing an intriguing palette of "timbral resonance."
The second piece, Water Spirits, combines water and vocal sounds that are sonically transformed by algorithms created by the composer to modify microrhythmic and timbral details. The effect sounds very close to granular synthesis. According to Hoffman, the algorithms she uses "rearrange or eliminate data [to create] statistically accurate but temporally jumbled waveforms or sequentially accurate but incomplete waveforms." Her description might imply a messy, inconsistent array of sounds, but this is not the case. Hoffman wants the listener to experience "a slightly askew tactility of otherwise familiar sounds." She is largely successful in this endeavor, though the algorithms she uses work over her material without coming up with much that one might describe as novel or surprising. This might have occurred if she had submitted the water and vocal sounds to more variation, or combined them in a more timbrally unified manner such as one hears in many electroacoustic pieces by Paul Lansky. Also, one gets the sense that this piece would carry more tactile or visceral weight if heard in a concert setting on large and powerful speakers, which would allow the low frequencies she uses to literally move the listener's body.
In Songstressed, one of the best pieces on this CD, Hoffman is unafraid to let her textures remain thin and transparent, implying more with less, if you will. The general pacing of events is relaxed and patient. Frequency bandwidths slowly come into focus and then dissipate, wavelike. Near the beginning of the piece there is a low, rumbling timbre that sounds as if one were listening to a chorus of voices slowed down and processed through a low-pass filter. From here, Hoffman gradually introduces birdsong and bird chatter, effectively spatialized via slow panning. The birdcall recordings she uses are amplitude...