Max Mathews Birthday Concert: Rhythmicana

 Max Mathews at 80th Birthday Concert

Max Mathews with conductor Jindong Cai, after concert.

This week has been a series of events celebrating the 80th birthday of Max Mathews (on Nov. 11th of last year).  To kick things off there was a concert out at Stanford University featuring a performance of Henry Cowell’s Rhythmicana.  This composition is, probably, the earliest concerto for orchestra and electronic instrument, which makes it a fitting tribute for the man who made all of computer music possible.

Cowell had started conceptualizing the rhythmicon as early as 1916, but it was when he was introduced to Leon Theremin in 1930 that the possibility of constructing the instrument arose.  The rhythmicon was a loop based instrument, using rotating disks with holes to generate the rhythms.  The machine operated using a system of proportional integer multiples, going from 1 pulse per cycle to 16 pulses per cycle.  Any of these integer loops could be played in any combination, creating a large number of combinatorial possibilities.  The machine was amplified, and although no one is quite sure what it sounded like exactly, the tones were also in integer multiples up the harmonic series.

The Rhythmicon
Joseph Schillenger with the Rhythmicon.

For the performance at Stanford, because of the lack of a rhythmicon (none in working order exist), Max played the part using his Radio Baton (which he invented) and a computer generation (I assume using Csound, but I didn’t ask).  The radio baton consists of a base plate that detects two batons moving in 3d, and outputting their coordinates.  The baton can also output triggers from which can be derived pulse, making it the perfect controller to play with an orchestra.

Because of the complexity of the rhythms that can be produced by the rhythmicon, this is a incredibly hard piece to conduct (16 against 7 against 3, which a 4/4 orchestra part, as an example), however conductor Jindong Cai did a superb job, with the help of a computer generated click track for both Max and himself.

The piece itself was fantastic, reminding once again how great of a composer Henry Cowell was.  The orchestrations (which used almost no traditional harmony, and instead a variety of tone clusters) juxtaposed perfectly with the overtone series produced by the rhythmicon part, and the rhythms were also great accompaniment to the orchestral part (which was also played very well).

All in all it was a very enjoyable evening (and well attended), and made for a very rare glimpse at the past of electronic art.  And the further back we look, the further forward we can see.

Happy birthday Max.

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