Prolific new music composer Nathan Davis elevates a Music in Time program with populist electronica 

Dial It In

Nathan Davis wants you to know what it feels like to play an instrument

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Nathan Davis wants you to know what it feels like to play an instrument

"I'm not really concerned with purists, or with some external sense of musical or acoustic purity," says the New Hampshire-based composer and percussionist Nathan Davis. The seriousness with which Davis takes this sentiment becomes self-evident quickly enough. No less than five of Davis' mind- and ear-bending compositions are on the June 2 program for Spoleto's cultishly popular new music series Music in Time. They'll be foregrounded by a 30-minute 2011 work entitled "Bells" that turns any notion of musical purity — even the premise of musicianship itself — on its head.

"Bells" takes what is normally music hall blasphemy and makes it a key part of the composition: audience members are asked not only to leave their cell phones turned on during the performance but to use them.

The musicians of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra will play the primary musical material, written for wind instruments, percussion, gongs, and — no surprise here — small bells. But there's one additional instrument that Davis has incorporated into the ensemble that requires quite a few more players: a ring modulator.

What, you don't know what a ring modulator is?

OK, let's take this slowly: a ring modulator is a special type of electronic mixer that accepts two signals as audio inputs and produces their sum and difference tones at its output, but does not pass on the frequencies found in the original signals themselves.

Still not with me? Alright. How's this: Have you ever watched Doctor Who? You know the freaky way the Daleks say "EXTERMINATE!" right before they start vaporizing people into green glowing skeletons of antimatter? Yeah: ring modulation. Not the vaporizing part, the "Exterminate!" part.

It's an audio effect that actually has quite a long history in music, harkening back to the very earliest days of electronic tunes in 1947. But it was popularized by artists like Ozzy, Devo, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, the Mars Volta, Chick Corea, and the Flaming Lips, to name a few — and of course those irrepressible Daleks.

While the musicians perform, members of the audience will dial a number on their cellphones and enter different codes to call up different sounds, preferably via speakerphone. The ring modulator gathers audio input from the musicians, creating what Davis calls "phantom duos" from modulated pairs of live instruments on stage, as well as from other less traditionally musical sources: distant sounds of electrical interference from space and solar radiation, satellite signals, messages in Morse code, and shortwave radio stations.

The result? The New York Times described the work's premiere performance — at the Tully Scope Festival at Lincoln Center in February 2011 — as "an alluring and pensive musical experience ... a wash of vibrating tones, Morse-code-like ticks, intoned spoken numbers, patches of crackling static, cosmic shimmers, and more."

"Composers and creative musicians have always been eager to use new instruments and resources," Davis observes. "I have no doubt that Mozart would have embraced electronics as he embraced the fortepiano," a.k.a. the piano, an instrument much younger in that composer's time than the use of electronics in music is today. "Bells," he says, seeks to provide "a look into the sounds and meanings of our means of communication" through an experience he calls "equal parts concert piece, installation, and happening."

Naturally, this brings us back to Davis' feelings about musical purity, which would seem inversely proportional to how he feels about the use of technology in music — though in a sense it's a purity of experience he's aiming for, rather than any Platonic ideal of what music is or should be. "Amplification is for me the most direct means to give an audience member something of the sonic experience of actually playing an instrument," Davis says. "The immediacy of sound, the richness of the overtones, the bite of the bow as it first grabs the string — these are all diminished by the distance between performer and audience, and I use technology to overcome this gap."

Yet it's fair to say that Davis is more than an eccentric tinkerer with electronic musical whirlygigs and thingamabobs.

His music has been performed across the country by some of its most preeminent ensembles, and he's received international performances at Helsinki Musica Nova, Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt, Audio Art Krakow, and other festivals in Holland, China, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and Australia. He's heard his work broadcast on NPR's All Things Considered, WNYC's New Sounds Live, KALW's Then and Now, and American Public Media's The Story. He performs regularly at major venues throughout New York City, across the U.S. and Europe, and has toured Russia, Bali, and Turkey. He has recorded for Nonesuch and at least eight other labels.

In between all this activity, Davis is an active percussionist who's found time to premiere hundreds of new works, and has appeared as a concerto soloist with the Seattle Symphony and at Carnegie's Zankel Hall. With a Masters in Music from Yale, Davis teaches and directs the Contemporary Performance Lab at Dartmouth College. He's also done residencies at Harvard, Princeton, UCSD, Brown, and, y'know, those sorts of places.

One thing Davis' ubiquitous presence on the new music scene has provided, besides a cultured palate: a rare perspective on what's happening with music in general as we enter the hazardous tweens of the 21st century.

Looking over the landscape of contemporary music from this vantage point — whether in the iTunes store or in the increasingly darkened concert halls in the U.S. — Davis demurely suggests he wouldn't presume to know where any of it is going. But, he observes, "I think that many of the conceptual battles of the 20th century have been fought, and composers of art music are free to use any techniques that support their music without alienating the audience or writing a manifesto to defend it." Many of those concepts, he points out, have filtered down into the mainstream and were introduced by composers in the avant-garde well before they were embraced by the inhabitants of the pop music mainstream.

But the divide between pop success and the often struggling musicians and composers who comprise today's new music vanguard is about more than merely which side of the bleeding edge they're technically on, as any indie music store clerk (is there such a thing anymore?) can tell you. The difference comes down, as always, to one of creativity.

"I don't hear nearly as much innovation in commercial music today as in non-commercial music," says John Kennedy, who programs Music in Time for Spoleto and serves as the Festival's resident conductor.

"With the decline of the recording industry as a reliable source of revenue for artists, commercial music today is more heavily driven by an industry machine focused on particular musical products. The composers and musicians who are outside of that machine — regardless of genre — are the ones doing interesting work."

While not interested in flushing all of contemporary pop down the nearest toilet, Davis expresses similar sentiments. "Mainstream commercial music rewards only subtle innovations — a catchy riff, a mash-up of already familiar styles, a good beat — but it does so within a song form that has remained unchanged for more than 60 years. The commercial industry is clearly a mess, and the groundswell of support for independent music in all forms — indie rock, indie classical, indie country, etc. — underscores how wrong the industry has had it, and how hungry listeners are for imaginative music."

In addition to Bells, the June 2 Music in Time program will include an additional four of Davis' works: "On speaking a hundred names" (2010), "Crawlspace" (2002), "Weather Rock" (2012), and "Skrzyp Skrzyń" (2010). And, in an exceedingly rare example of festival crossover, Davis' work also appears in this year's Piccolo Spoleto Festival. The Other Mozart, a play written and performed by his wife Sylvia Milo about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's sister, features incidental music created by the composer.

Hopefully, it will not include your cellphone.

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