Thursday, January 13, 2011

Trafficking in sound: Stephen Montague's Horn Concerto for Klaxon Horn and 20 Automobiles

What's the definition of noise? For me, noise is unorganized sound. Which makes music organized sound. If you can't hear the organization, you might think it's noise. But it's not.

I thought about that again while listening and viewing the following work. Stephen Montague is an American composer active in Europe. I first ran across him on an album by rhe Relache Ensemble, where they performed his chamber work Paramell VI. It's an attractive post-minimalist work, and one that's very easy to hear the organization of (which makes it music).

Montague's also created several interesting multimedia works, including the one below. The Horn Concerto for klaxon horn and 20 automobiles was premiered in 1998 as part of the European Music Day festivities. Some might dismiss this work as "noise," or perhaps even something too silly to be worthy of their attention.

But I think that's wrong. While there's a certain amount of whimsy about the work, if you pay attention you'll hear a carefully organized sonic work Montague works imaginatively with his material. The soloist uses several horns, and they're not just tooted willy-nilly. While the pitches of the horns are relative, it's clear that the composer has specified which horns are to be played, and in what rhythm.

The cars, which form the orchestra, are also used creatively. The different pitches of the horns are used to form chords, and not every horn plays at the same time. Plus, Montague uses the revving of the engines (also at different pitches and durations) to further expand his musical resources.

I recommend playing the video without watching it. By removing the visuals, it's easier to hear what's going on musically -- and there's more going on than just a silly joke. But then make sure you also watch the video. Montague understands that the sight of 20 Mini Coopers is an unusual one, and he orchestrates some visual elements to further articulate the musical structure.

While I don't think anyone would argue that the Horn Concerto is a great piece of music, it certainly is one of the more imaginative multimedia works I've encountered. And -- what the heck -- it's a lot of fun, too. Enjoy!

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