This July I attended ELF — A Multimedia Concert, which examined the remaining artifacts and impact of “Project ELF,” a Cold War-era deep-water submarine communications project by the US Navy. The concert featured the composition ELFsong by Ashlee Busch synchronized with a video installation by artist Nayda Collazo-Llorens and writer Ander Monson.
The concert took place at the Makeshift gallery in Kalamazoo, MI. While the gallery was somewhat difficult to find, I managed to arrive well before the concert. I was quite glad to be there early, as the gallery held a reception with food and drinks right in the middle of an art exhibit.
I passed through a cheery, bright pink living room in which disembodied stories of everyday violence played from a small pink radio set, and squeezed past a large black net that blocked off the majority of the next room on my way to the reception.
The small audience in attendance were mostly artists, many of whom stayed for the Q&A session with the the composer, performers, and video artist following the concert.
Relics of the Cold War
The decommissioned transmitters for this project — which the Navy installed despite concerns on their environmental and health impact — remain in Republic, Michigan and northern Wisconsin.
The video installation ELF (Extremely Low Frequency) focused on the Republic site and consisted of static-frame video shots of the area surrounding the transmission towers interpolated with animations of Monson’s text.
The text, which consisted of three-letter groupings describing the impact and decay of these ELF stations, was quite difficult to take in in its entirety, as it faded quite rapidly, leaving an impression of decay and impermanence.
The static-framed video shots of abandoned playgrounds, surveillance cameras, cyclone fencing, and the towers themselves projected a “charged stillness,” as the videographer put it. Despite being abandoned and still, the area has a potent and contentious history evident in the disturbances the towers make on the landscape.
“Singing of the Towers Created from Wars Past”
Busch described her composition ELFsong in the program notes as the “singing of the towers created from wars past.”
In the post-concert talk, Collazo-Llorens explained that she had recorded the hum that the transmission towers still generate to create the original soundtrack for her video.
Inspired by the song-like quality of the hum, and the way the beauty of this “song” juxtaposed with the military purpose of Project ELF, Busch extracted and emphasized various component frequencies of these hums to create the electronic track for her composition.
She wrote the piano and violin parts based on these extracted frequencies, as well as the rhythms of the Morse code the towers would have used.
Stillness, Decay, and Disturbance of the Landscape
Overall, the music was quite somber and monolithic. The electronic part emphasized the bottom end of the spectrum, as suggested by the title, and was often somewhat indefinite in pitch.
The violin and piano layered short, sparse melodic patterns, strumming of the piano strings, and bell-like chords as individual pitches slowly emerged and receded from the electronic parts.
Toward the end of the piece, the violin and piano slowly shifted away from the A-major tonality suggested by the hum of the tower, suggesting the decay of these towers over time.
All of the live material blended quite smoothly with the electronics, creating the illusion of one large instrument. In particular, the strumming of the piano strings created a dark wash of sound with indistinct pitch that was almost indistinguishable from the electronics.
Indeterminacy and Spontaneity
In keeping with Busch’s professed interest in the interactivity of live music, the pianist and violinist had a large degree of rhythmic freedom.
Busch explained after the concert that the performers had used stopwatches for approximate timing of the sections, but otherwise primarily responded to each other. However, as an audience member, this was not immediately apparent, as the performers appeared quite engrossed in their own parts.
As another layer of interactivity, the violinist frequently put down her instrument to strum the piano strings while the pianist continued with his part.
Although the combination of playing on the keys and inside the piano simultaneously created complex textures that were quite effective, the ceremonial setting down and picking up of the violin somewhat interrupted the continuity of the performance.
An Intimate Concert Space
The concert was quite intimate. The performance took place in a small exhibition room with 19 chairs, and the audience filled the venue with several people standing to the side of the chairs.
The gallery hosted a reception before and after, and gallery director Thomas Howes and co-director Nichole Maury made themselves available afterward for questions. The audience, consisting primarily of other artists, was quite responsive during the question-and-answer session, which lasted for at least 20 minutes.
Short but Satisfying
While the actual performance was quite short, the gallery expanded this presentation into something quite worth my attendance.
While the piece was fairly simple and repetitive, it fit perfectly with the somber stillness of the video and made the video even more effective. The almost imperceptible motions of trees and other objects in the video frames created a heightened awareness of the abandoned space, and made the stillness even more “charged” than a still image would have.
While I initially worried about following and understanding the rapidly-disappearing text in addition to the music and video, my inability to do so made the text even more striking.
After the events surrounding the performance, such as the ability to see other art installations before and after and the rather weighty discussion period after the presentation, even this small concert was quite satisfying.
Reilly Spitzfaden is a composer interested in working closely with chamber musicians; using sound as an analogue for motion, shape, space, and color; and drawing attention to the spaces between sounds. His compositions appear on the recording “Statements” with the Michigan State University composition studio and in the Media Sandbox and Michigan State University Department of Theatre film (313) Choices. He has premiered works in the U.S. and Italy at the 2015 “Voicing Poetry” project, which paired living composers and poets in East Lansing, Michigan; the soundSCAPE festival; the Eastman School of Music; and Michigan State University. He is a recent winner of the Howard Hanson Orchestral Prize and the MSU Large Ensemble Competition.