Some instruments, once you’ve glimpsed them, stay with you. I’ll never forget my brief encounter with the emormous, room-filling RCA Mark II synthesizer, the first of its kind, built in the 1950s and bursting with period charisma, thanks to its towering stacks of vacuum-tube components and endless rows of knobs and dials. Its aura was so redolent of the early-Cold War era, it seemed that if composers like Milton Babbitt and Vladimir Ussachevsky had not kept it so busy, then maybe, just maybe, we might have beaten the Soviets into space.
These days, the Mark II’s near-prehistoric status could be underscored by a quick glimpse at the gear set up for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert on Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall, which included about a dozen loudspeakers and a couple of sleek Macbook Pros. To be sure, the tools now available to composers of electronic music are unrecognizable from the field’s earliest days, but its animating impulse may have evolved much less so, as composers still strive to enlarge expressive boundaries and to find novel ways of deploying new sounds in dialogue with older instruments.
Sunday’s BMOP concert, titled “Surround Sound,” placed a welcome spotlight on three such veteran composers of electronic music, beginning with Ronald Bruce Smith’s “Constellation,” a fascinating 10-minute work written in 2000. Under Gil Rose’s baton, it came off as a riveting essay in stasis and flux, with a core of relative harmonic stillness surrounded by a sea of teeming surface details — from rapid harp figurations to precarious towers of brass tone and vibrant splashes of percussion.
Uniquely, Smith embeds his electronics subtly within the orchestral tapestry, enhancing timbral fields through techniques built on the traditional art of orchestration as practiced since the days of Mozart. In performance, the synthesized sound was almost entirely integrated into the larger acoustic mass, challenging the ear to pinpoint the precise boundary between the two. The sum total was a gorgeous if slightly uneasy sonic opulence: the sound of a Romantic orchestra on digital steroids.
Anthony Paul De Ritis’s “Riflessioni,” written for bassoonist Patrick de Ritis (of apparently no familial relation), received its premiere on Sunday’s program. If Smith had built outward organically from within the traditional orchestra, “Riflessioni” applies electronics from the outside in, to greatly enlarge the soloist’s sonic footprint. In this case, the bassoonist’s real-time performance plays out in dialogue with his own pre-recorded musical self, as the solo line is prodded by fragments of de Ritis’s own playing, captured in a studio earlier this year and then manipulated sometimes beyond recognition. The orchestra comes along for what is by turns a kinetic and lyrical ride, one that on Sunday also forced you to consider how conventional notions of virtuosity might be redefined for a work where so much happens off-stage and on screen.
David Felder’s “Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux” of 2013 was the symphonic-length conclusion to Sunday’s program. It’s a fiercely ambitious work, employing soprano and bass soloists (here, Laura Aikin and Ethan Herschenfeld), and weaving together poetic texts by René Daumal, Robert Creeley, and others, by turns sung, heard in recorded recitation, and abstracted into pure sound. At one point, for instance, we hear all the vowels of a poem strung together without any consonants. Felder deploys his vastly expanded palette of sounds artfully. In Sunday’s account, the human voice of the poetry introduced a kind of melancholy undercurrent beneath the whir of the orchestral machine.
None of the three works was of a sort easily gulped down in a single hearing. But the performances by Rose and BMOP were exemplary, opening up as many questions as they answered about the possibilities for 21st-century technologies interacting with what we might describe as the cutting-edge sound technology of the 19th century — also known as the symphony orchestra.