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Composer Anthony Davis hears music in human voice

Anthony Davis, composer of the opera ``X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X'' (premi`ered last fall), has completed a new work in which he uses computers to explore the musical qualities of speech. Having first made his reputation as a vanguard jazz pianist and composer, then creating a powerful modern opera, Mr. Davis has now demonstrated his talents in the high frontier of electronic music.

The piece ``song was sweeter even so'' (lower-cased by the poet), premi`ered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last weekend, is a successful first for Davis. With the help of MIT's Experimental Music Studio, he made a tape of computer-generated sounds to be played simultaneously with music he wrote for his chamber ensemble, Episteme.

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The performance of the piece was a fitting finale to an evening of new music works at MIT, including the premi`ere of ``Shadows,'' by Richard Boulanger, advocate of computer music and professor at Boston's Berklee College of Music, and ``Quark 2,'' by New York-based composer Earl Howard.

In a pre-concert lecture, Davis said that working on the opera ``X'' generated his interest in text as a compositional tool. This time, he created ``a sound environment'' derived from a poem written by Thulani Davis, his cousin and the author of the ``X'' libretto.

The poem ``C.T.'s variation'' brings to life a ``quiet ballad of natural disaster'' - concerning the flooding of the Mississippi River in summertime, the life of rural folk along its banks, and ``that sound of jazz from back/ boarded shanties by railroad tracks.'' ``The idea,'' said Davis, ``was to take the text as a basis for the structure of the whole piece. Everything is drawn from the spoken language.''

He began with a prerecorded reading of the poem by the author. Using computers, he isolated words, phrases, and vowel and consonant sounds and varied their speed and pitch. For instance, a minute fraction of a word, speeded up 10 times, resulted in a percussion effect. An elongated ``s'' sound created the image of crickets at night, which he used to begin and end the piece.

The process of disassembling speech is ``like hearing in slow motion how the sound is produced,'' said Davis. ``It's taking apart something you hear all the time and finding music in it.''

For the performance, Miss Davis stood among the musicians of Episteme (with Mr. Davis conducting) and read the poem through once as the tape set forth the mood with whirring, cricketlike sounds. ``Some springs the Mississippi rose up so high/ it drowned the sound of singing and escape...'' she said, with a measured drawl. The taped sounds, imitated by such on-stage instruments as violin, cello, bassoon, flute, and percussion, gradually became recognizable as words from the poem.

At one point, Miss Davis's prerecorded sentences took the form of a three-voiced canon of fast whisperings at different pitches. When each voice came to the word ``skies,'' the vowel sound was prolonged, creating a startingly harmonious chord. This gesture gave the line, ``Visionary women letting pigeons loose/ on unsettled skies'' a wondrous sense of frozen, yet ascending, movement.

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That Davis could transform the human voice into such imaginative forms was proof of his ear for the beauties of natural speech and the subtleties of harmonics. ``I like the idea of sound coming from a human source; that fascinates me,'' he said. ``The contour and shape of the language ... provided me with beautiful structures.''

Another Davis work on the program, ``Some Springs'' (1986), similarly takes its form from ``C.T.'s variation'' with soprano Cynthia Aaronson artfully developing the emotions of the text, much as the tape did in ``song was sweeter even so.'' In a third work, ``Undine'' (1986), Davis exploits the improvisational skills of his group (as he did in the opera ``X''), while maintaining a backdrop of formal integrity.

Davis visited the Experimental Music Studio last summer. Founder Barry Vercoe notes it's difficult to ``hand over'' the technology overnight, so Davis worked under the tutelage of Richard Boulanger. ``We're hoping that next time Davis comes, he can bite off a bigger chunk, but what he did bite off this time was practical for what he was trying to do,'' Mr. Vercoe told the Monitor. ``He didn't quite match the variety and flexibility of his instrumental music.''

But Vercoe believes Davis displayed the potential for success in computer music. ``The question is: Will he invest the time it takes to explore the medium further? Naturally, we can't expect someone to go `all the way' the first time. What you see in [`song was sweeter even so'] is a composer who is beginning to encounter the technical medium and to find out what works for him.''

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