Mixtape theory: Sympho’s ARCO

Great big New York happening, the premiere of an evening-long work from immersive orchestral reformists Sympho to open the Tune-In Festival at the Park Avenue Armory in February, ticks many of our boxes where the direction of composition and the concert experience is concerned. The work, entitled ARCO, constitutes four large-scale sections, each one ‘directed’ by one of the ensemble’s affiliated ‘performing composers’: Paul Haas, Paul Fowler and Bora Yoon. The piece is site-specific, not only utilising the huge Armory Drill Hall as visual location, physical space and acoustic, but also addressing the site as subject. The composition process is collaborative at many levels, involving the amalgamation of music written by each composer, but also the simultaneous over-layering of different composer’s input. On top of that, the piece is also structured around the use, wholesale, in variation or in fragmentation, of pre-existent works, including Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus.

ARCO therefore goes further than adding to the exploration of a classical ‘cover version’, ‘mash-up’ or ‘remix’, and plays more with the idea of the mixtape (or, for a live equivalent, a carefully thought-out DJ set), situating whole performances of pre-existent works as segments within a much longer structure, itself dependent upon a theme. The piece takes quite seriously the ensemble’s avowed intent to ‘acknowledge the lack of boundaries in our post-iPod society’, and the composers involved take it upon themselves to ‘compose out’ the pre-existent concert programme into an integrated evening of music, framed, mediated and commented upon by the newly-composed material.

The composers themselves apparently have some very grandiose themes in mind: ‘a modern creation myth that speaks of the human condition’, ‘a journey in the landscape of the human soul’, ‘the search for meaning and purpose along multiple emotional, spiritual, and psychological paths’, etc etc. All this suggests universality to the point of utter vagueness, and I suppose they’ve relied on some of the pre-existent connotations of some very ‘spiritual’ and ‘profound’ works to articulate what the programme notes describe as a paradoxically specific play of vague archetypes. I haven’t heard the piece, although the fact that Sympho inventively use a Bandcamp account to provide downloads of their live recordings online suggests that they’re resourceful enough to see the point in distributing a recorded version of it. Given the theatrical, site-specific dimensions of ARCO, a video would be even better. Once we get a chance to assess the nature of the musical framework, we can consider whether all this appealing to ‘the symbolic circle that embodies the infinite inclusivity of the universe’ might be an evasive tactic to postpone the need to explore any real concrete themes while dealing with some really quite revolutionary approaches to structure, process and presentation, or whether such a reading really does encapsulate the experience of the music. Or perhaps it’s a concessionary appeal to the purists who might be put off by the idea of old pieces being fragmented and assimilated into a new directive framework.

The problem that I have with such epic, bombastic claims of transcendental profundity is that it risks suggesting that such innovations in concert programming, in collaborative and intertextual composition and in the reappropriation of old material are all fundamentally geared towards the pursuit of even greater transcendence. Such high claims for a new format risk setting a precedent for these innovations by linking them to certain ideals, just as genres and styles within traditional classical music have been linked to ideals that limit their expressive abilities. If all that this new process ‘means’ to the composers can be summed up in an abstract, New Age spiritualist metaphor, then the practical applications are being mixed up with assumed connotations, and any other potential for this ‘mixtape sensibility’ (and think how intuitive and varied dance and hip hop mixes can turn out to be) are effectively denied.

Still, we must appreciate that ARCO represents a new approach to the concert as an event, to music as a live experience, to the presentation of ‘canonical’ works, to the process of composition, and to the role and persona of the composer. And who knows, perhaps when we actually hear the thing, its articulation of the ‘soul’s journey’ might seem unequivocal…

Read the programme notes here

And… the NY Times review which picks up on the mixtape elements

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