Sonic Generator, an ensemble sponsored by Georgia Tech, performed a free ten-hour marathon of contemporary music called SONICPalooza at the Woodruff Arts Center on Saturday, June 25, 2011. Having no idea of what to expect, I was blown away by their musicianship. All members of Sonic Generator are professionals, and three of them (Tom Sherwood, Brad Ritchie, and Ted Gurch) also perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO). Tim Whitehead’s solo performance of Philip Glass’s Mad Rush on piano was one of my favorites of the evening. Playing long passages at seemingly impossible speeds, his deft touch on the ivories was amazing. More impressive was the fact that the musicians were not improvising; they were playing from sheet music written by each composer.
Woodruff Arts Center paid the expenses of this event held in their galleria. All other Sonic Generator events have been free due to Georgia Tech covering expenses. Sonic Generator often uses technology and video in their work, which was used to a lesser extent at this event.
Whitehead told me that he “plays anywhere that will have him.” He performs a great deal of chamber music with ASO musicians, as well as chamber music at Northside Drive Baptist Church in Buckhead. Whitehead has been playing with Sonic Generator for over a year and a half.
Jessica Peek Sherwood, wife of the group’s visionary Tom Sherwood, told me the reason she plays with Sonic Generator is because “there is so much great music, and it is great to play with friends.” “Once you play a performance,” she continued, “there is so much new music you can add on.” When not playing with the group, Sherwood freelances and plays solo flute performances, including a piece for Flux Projects with video by Amber Boardman that will appear in three performances beginning Wednesday, July 6, 2011. (Click here for more information on FAV.) In her first piece at SONICPalooza, Sherwood used an unusual digital instrument hooked up to a car speaker to make noises she compared to “Pac-Man” sounds. Throughout the marathon, she played flute, the electronic instrument, drums, and even sang in the finale.
Jason Freeman, executive director for Sonic Generator and assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Music said, “This concert is [Tom Sherwood’s] vision to take this music out of the stodginess of the concert hall out to where everyone can experience it. It brings contemporary music to a much wider audience.” Freeman raises money, organizes events, and collaborates with students and other faculty to provide technology to the musicians.
But I was not the only one impressed. I randomly selected audience members to question. [Note: Several interviewees below asked for their surnames to be left out.]
I first found a young student named Travis sitting in the back row who spent forty-five minutes commuting downtown just for the Philip Glass pieces. He described Tim Whitehead’s performance as “awesome.” Travis, now in business school at Georgia State, did his undergrad work at Georgia Tech.
Fellow listener Paige, who was sitting closer to the action, said that she goes to most of Sonic Generator’s concerts at the Rich Auditorium at Woodruff and at Georgia Tech. She loves their performances and has been following them for about four years.
William, another audience member, declared himself to be a lover of the contemporary music being played at this event: “It is exciting to see it.” While this is his first Sonic Generator performance, he saw his first Philip Glass concert twenty years ago at MIT. William believes this music has special appeal for people who enjoy mathematics. He went on to say mention Glass’s work for movie soundtracks such as for The Hours. William described Glass’s most recent work as more melodic and powerful with deep emotions.
While William discussed Glass’s evolution as a composer, it hit me that most of the music I was hearing would make great soundtracks to movies and short films. So I was not surprised to see video projections appear as accompaniment during the 9- and 10-p.m. hours of the marathon. The same video projected onto two large screens on either side of the stage. I would love to use some of these compositions as music to slide shows of my own photography. The music swayed from relaxing to stimulating throughout the day. I saw other audience members closing their eyes and drifting along with the notes. It was obvious that one can enjoy this music in a multitude of ways, whether you call it contemporary music, art music, or modern classical.
I will admit “Sonic Generator” is a name that doesn’t necessarily sound like classically trained professionals, but indeed they are incredible musicians playing complex but highly entertaining music on a mix of violins, drums, viola, bass, and piano along with some nontraditional instruments such as tin cans, buzzers, pots, and pans. Whitehead played amazing piano. Helen Hwaya Kim was flawless and rousing on her violin. Wanda Yang Temko was more a human instrument than a simple “singer” in the performance of George Crumb’s Unto the Hills.
Sonic Generator member Dominic Salerni is first violinist for the Vega String Quartet in residency at Emory University. He said it best when he told me, “This is real cutting-edge stuff.” His father is a music composer, so he has been exposed to this kind of music “since day one.” “As a string player,” he continued, “it is cool to collaborate with percussionists.” Salerni pointed out that Sonic Generator is doing music that is not often performed (although Freeman mentioned that you can sometimes hear it during the 6-9 a.m. classical time slot of WREK, Georgia Tech’s radio station). As someone who planned to stay for no more than fours hours, but changed his mind to stay for all ten, I believe this is music that should be played and heard.