ICE gets to the heart of Davidovsky’s electronic and acoustic music

March 08, 2011
By Sean Piccoli

Mario Davidovsky's 77th birthday was marked Friday night with a performance of his music by ICE at Columbia University.

Mario Davidovsky won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for Synchronisms No. 6, a work mixing live performance with pre-recorded electronic sound, and the award is, not surprisingly, a highlight of his résume. But prizes sometimes categorize their recipients, and while Davidovsky isn’t likely to give his back, one senses from his comments that he would welcome a bit more emphasis on his music, and a bit less on his methods.

A performance of his works Friday night at New York’s Columbia University, where Davidovsky taught and wrote, helped make his case: a composer who sometimes works with circuitry, not an electronics technician who happens to write music.

The Chicago-based International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) attacked six of Davidovsky’s pieces, electronic and acoustic alike, with a devotional intensity that discouraged type-casting. The composer, marking his 77th birthday Friday, watched from the seats at Columbia’s Miller Theater as ensemble soloists sparred with banks of machine-made tones or played in traditional, tapeless chamber arrangements.

In both cases, ICE brought out the astringent elegance of the Argentine-born composer’s music: clustering notes and close-in harmonies offset by streaking lines; stark patterns inlaid with enough asymmetry and white noise to create a sensation of willful, randomly excerpted movement.

Romancero (1983) covered all of the wild terrain vividly, without electronic voicing. Soprano Tony Arnold sang yearning Spanish poems that dated to the age of Arabic influence on Spain, while strings and reeds alternated around her, advancing and falling back in a kind of rivalry for the singer’s affections.

Arnold returned to conduct Festino Notturno (1999), the most densely populated of the evening’s acoustic pieces, with eight musicians producing the inviting cacophony and riotous color suggested by the title.

In closing with Synchronisms No. 12 (2007), for tape and clarinet, ICE returned to Davidovsky’s electro-acoustic roots, but in a piece written decades after his Pulitzer, with the composer at a different point of understanding of his own work.

As with earlier Synchronisms, No. 12 placed a soloist in dialogue with a profusion of shudders and beeps. But clarinetist Joshua Rubin’s nimble, tactile playing illuminated one of the lasting achievements of Davidovsky’s hybrid style: Using electronics, he got flesh-and-blood musicians to expand their vocabulary. Players confronted with Davidovsky’s synthetic language invented tones and timbres for handmade instruments that let them talk to the machines — or converse among themselves — in an idiosyncratic, entirely human way.

Sean Piccoli is a freelance writer based in New York City and a former music critic for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. He has covered arts, entertainment, culture, politics and news for a variety of publications, and is the author of biographies of Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. He can be reached at

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