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Eric Lyon concert, May 6, 1993

July 21, 2010

If the most talented and creative American composers were rewarded by commissions, performances, and recognition, Eric Lyon would be at the top of the heap for my generation. There are few composers I have known whose talent dazzles me the way Eric’s does. The man is a genius, and the shameful neglect of Eric’s work is proof that the American music establishment and academic system are dysfunctional.

I wrote ecstatic reviews for most of Eric’s work that I heard in concert. No arts administrators ever contacted Eric about a commission. Had he been given a high-profile residency with an orchestra or ensemble, I’m convinced he’d be a tenured professor at a prestigious American music school and/or in demand for new works by the most talented performers and organizations in the business. But Eric never got that lucky break. He moved from San Diego to Japan to Dartmouth to Manchester to Belfast over the last 15 years or so, while less-talented but better connected classmates of his found career stability and relative success.

At the end of this review, which originally ran in the La Jolla Light on May 20, 1993, I claimed that Eric’s music was the most consistently exciting and enjoyable music of any San Diego composer. For the sake of comparison, at the time that would have included Roger Reynolds, Joji Yuasa, and Brian Ferneyhough. In fact, given a choice today between listening to a new work by Eric and any of those three gentlemen, I would be most enthusiastic about hearing the new Lyon opus.

Unfortunately, I don’t find Eric’s recorded output his strongest work. The music of his I enjoy most are his larger ensemble pieces and his chamber music for soloist or chamber group and computer music. He’s working on a big piece for Kathy Supove for piano and electronics, which has the potential, given Kathy’s visibility in the new music world, to be a breakthrough work for Eric. Let’s hope so.

On tape or in the flesh, Lyon’s music provokes

Eric Lyon came to San Diego in the mid ’80s with some of the most gleefully malevolent music I had ever heard. It was obsessive and violent. His tape pieces were played back at volumes so exceedingly loud that most audience members tightly covered their ears. To pour salt in the wound, these tape parts were often filled with rude, cruel sounds, as if Lyon had gone out of his way to create the most grating timbres he could electronically summon.

Lyon has always been a provocative composer. But over the past seven years his language has evolved into something he dubs “The New Sensitivity.” In his recent works, the materials themselves are not as unsettling as his forms, created by juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated elements.

The surface of his recent music is frequently quite pleasant, but the underlying syntax is disturbing. Any given measure may have the veneer of Classical or popular music, but the melodies and harmonies operate in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. Unrelated styles are butted and interwoven to create musical edifices that threaten to collapse from the extreme differences in materials, yet miraculously stand tall, mocking the modernist ideology of stylistic purity.

Lyon never simply evokes a style; he grotesquely parodies it. Nothing is sacred to him. He skewers contemporary European complexity as readily as he does 1960s pop music, 18th century Classicism, or hip-hop. The entire history of Western music and the plurality of music overcrowding the radio airwaves are simply source material for Lyon to distort.

On May 6 Lyon presented a concert of his recent works (three of them local premieres) at the Center for Research in Computers and the Arts on the UCSD campus. Before the concert, Haydn string quartets were played over loudspeakers as background music. This set the irreverent tone for the opening work, Lyon’s String Quartet No.2 with Computer Generated Tape.

The performers (Arun Bharali and Erik Ulman, violins; Conrad Bruderer, viola; and Enjoo Lee, cello) strode out amidst the onstage loudspeakers, electronic equipment cases, lava lamps, and the sleeping bags in the aisles, dressed in concert black and looking as if they had arrived at the wrong address for their gig.

The piece opens with a sample of a string quartet firmly playing a major triad, answered by the live quartet. The tape and quartet then trade off triads as if competing with each other. After this musical conf1ict, a few eerie washes of computer music momentarily shove aside the Classical music references, and soon an electronic pulse presages an extended dance section in which the tape functions as a hip-hop rhythm section, while the string quartet plays in a naive Classical style reminiscent of the string arrangements George Martin did for the Beatles. The difference in Lyon’s music is that there is never a firm sense of tonality; although he uses simple triadic figures and major scales, his cadences occur unpredictably, and the harmonic progressions are meaningless in a traditional sense.

Lyon’s genius lies in his ability to throw all of these disparate elements together and somehow make them work. As the quartet progresses, Lyon also mixes in 1960s psychedelic music (while the string quartet makes a brief allusion to the nursery tune “Rock-a-Bye Baby”), Industrial music, and a quaint section featuring archaic Columbia/Princeton electronic music studio sounds while the quartet trots out all of the “new music” cliches: loud staccato pointillism, sul ponticello notes, brief tremolos, and scratchy down bows.

The performers gave this piece a competent reading, yet it sounded too much like the quartet did not truly feel comfortable with this piece. One wished that the musicians could have been amplified; far too often they were over-shadowed by the tape part. Nonetheless, one is grateful for the opportunity to hear this work live; it is one of Lyon’s most striking pieces.

Lyon writes for the computer the same way that Ravel or Mahler wrote for the orchestra. His technique is virtuosic; there is apparently no sound he cannot produce. He is fond of taking outrageous source material–such as a grunt from a pornographic tape, or a suicidal gunshot–and using it, without reference to its origins, as just another sample to be manipulated. Unlike many computer music composers, whose tape parts are textural washes in which a performer swims around or plays against, Lyon’s tape parts aggressively interact with the live musicians. Motives pass from performer to tape, and vice versa.

This is not simply a matter of the tape playing strictly notated pitches. At one point in Paradigms II: In A Field Of Turnips, there is a rising and falling glissando in the tape part which the alto flute accurately imitates. John Fonville was the soloist for this work; unlike the quartet, Fonville knew his part inside and out. (This was the second performance.) The balance between performer and tape was much better here.

Paradigms II: In A Field Of Turnips is another blend of groovy ’60’s feel-good music, hip-hop, and nostalgic RCA Mark V synthesizer sounds. Instead of dissecting Classical music, Lyon takes apart the avant-garde flute tradition. There is also a swipe at UCSD composers who write pieces for soloists playing against a multi-track recording of themselves.

Greaseball pits an electric guitar against another virtuosic tape part. Lyon concocts a heady fusion of heavy metal, underground art-rock, contemporary dance music, and late-20th century concert music. John Stevens was the appropriately greasy guitarist.

The oddball in this concert was Paradigms III: Sign Language, for solo tape. It is one of those slow, spacy electronic pieces in which time is stretched out so successfully that one cannot tell how long the piece is: Was it 8 minutes, or 30? (I think it was somewhere around 25.) While this was unarguably a good piece, it displayed little of the manic invention apparent in the other three works on the program. Instead of making fun of Modernism, it was played right along with it. As one of my friends commented, “Eric, it sounds like you’re trying to get a job somewhere.”

Lyon himself seemed to realize this; he had to resort to turning on lava lamps and burning incense to put enough irony into the work. Still, there are few composers in San Diego who could put together a successful concert of their own works. As this concert demonstrated, when he is on target, as he was in his performer and tape pieces, there is no more exciting, enjoyable local composer.

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