MOXsonic 2020 Review – MIT’s Computer Music Journal

MIT’s Computer Music Journal 2021; 44 (1): 89–91 doi:

Reviewed by Ralph Lewis Champaign, Illinois, USA

This festival took place 5–7 March, 2020 at Hart Recital Hall, the Center for Music Technology, and the University of Central Missouri Gallery of Art and Design, Warrensburg, Missouri. For more information visit:

During the first weekend of March 2020, the University of Central Missouri (UCM) hosted the third annual Missouri Experimental Sonic Arts Festival, otherwise known as MOXsonic. Although some participants were unable to attend due to coronavirus exposures in United States airports that resulted in canceled flights, the festival successfully presented most of its planned concerts, installations, talks, and demonstrations. Even so, the contributions of the people whose travel plans were affected, such as New Renaissance Artist Elizabeth A. Baker’s performance of Gabrielle Cerberville’s “Phases,” were deeply missed.

On 5 March, MOXsonic kicked off with the first of its Nightlife concerts in UCM’s Gallery of Art and Design, with performances by Benjamin Penwell and Izi Austin, Brian Riordan and Jake Sentgeorge, and Daniel McKemie. Where Penwell and Austin’s “Look Love, See How Each of Us Is aWilderness” reveled in expansive, luscious stasis, “Elk Splat” by Riordan and Sentgeorge explored breaking points and collaborative moments between extended vocal techniques and live processing. I was particularly taken by how Penwell and Austin pushed each other even within the sheer musical surfaces they traversed.

McKemie’s “Live Code Synthesizer Control Etude #1” used laptop and a modular synthesizer, improvising with feedback loops inspired by Pauline Oliveros’s tape delay feedback setup. He presented a paper about this during the following day. Although each set was distinct, the different ways they combined elements of composition, improvisation, and experimental technology epitomized what made this year’s festival exciting and suggests what the future of MOXsonic could look like.

By design, MOXsonic is not necessarily only an electronic music festival per se. Instead, it has interests that run across disciplinary boundaries. According to the festival’s website (using their uppercase bolded letters): “MOXsonic focuses on programming concert events with experimental music involving LIVE performance with LIVE interactive technologies, fixed media events, live coding, and more. Improvisers, composer/performers, and teams of composers and performers are especially welcome, as are performers who would like to present new or recent works.MOXsonic is interested in a variety of musics, installations, and research presentations. In addition to our daytime activities, there is a nightlife component where musicians can stretch out and explore longer forms while other participants socialize.”

After the first night’s “stretched out” explorations, MOXsonic resumed on Friday with paper presentations, a workshop by Seah, Dave Seidel’s installation “Involution,” and a full day of concerts. Jason Palamara and Elaine Cooney’s presentation “Destructive and Inventive Instrument Development with IUPUI’s DISEnsemble” was a particularly intriguing survey of how this unique ensemble, comprising musicians and engineers, spends each semester making new instruments from scratch and performing new works for them.

Palamara, who was present to give the talk, is a professor of music and art technology, and Cooney is a professor of electrical and computer engineering technology. Through their combined efforts, the last few years have seen their students at Indiana University-PurdueUniversity Indianapolis (IUPUI) return to the ensemble more comfortable and curious about building, breaking, and modifying different software and hardware packages. Although there is much to be said for these kinds of explorations, the opportunity to dive deep into the often finicky, but fun, world of these practices in a stable, collaborative space sounded wonderful.

Seah, meanwhile, presented a workshop entitled “Body Resonance” that drew on their research in Butoh, Body Weather Laboratory, Noguchi Taiso, and Somatic Movement. As they explained to me, the goal of the workshop was “to introduce musicians to somatic movement practices, potentially opening paths to experience sound somatically (through the tissues) as opposed to intellectually or specifically through the ear.” These same ideas about sound transmission similarly arise in their work “Like Water,” which uses video of waves, enveloping low drones, and meditative live processing on stage. It may be presumptuous to insist on more of something, but I would be interested in MOXsonic or a similarly minded festival pursuing these ideas further and asking Seah to lead a recurring workshop each day of a festival as a central part of its planning.

Some of Friday’s concert highlights included works by Kennedy Dixon, Jesse Allison and Anthony Marasco, Neil Rolnick, and EricMandat. Dixon’s “Pretty on Paper,” a spacious, subtle work for viola and improvised electronics, showcased her skills as composer and violist, as well as a thoughtful collaborative dynamic with Kristopher Bendrick on live electronics. The audience participation work “Gravity | Density” by Allison and Marasco demonstrated a particularly successful use of mobile devices in an active manner. In addition to using an easy-to-access website that was responsive to in-themoment handling, the realization of this intricate network of overlapping glitching CD player samples was elusive and rewarding.

Rolnick’s “Messages” for solo laptop was a tasteful celebration of his deceased wife, Wendy. Using samples of her phone messages, he delivered a beautiful, spontaneous version of the work. I was initially unaware of the piece’s origin but was struck with Rolnick’s sense of timing throughout the performance. Later, after reading more about the meaning behind it, I have returned to this playful, loving memorial throughout this year.

Clarinetist-composer Eric Mandat’s performance of his “Before the Breath of Spring” was another quintessential MOXsonic moment. Although Mandat’s compositions are well regarded and his skills as soloist and member of the Tone Road Ramblers are well known, MOXsonic’s intersections of composition, improvisation, and live electronics perhaps allow another way to put Mandat’s longtime practices and ebullient curiosity into context. Throughout the set, he cued physical sensors to trigger manipulations of his dynamic, personal compositional expression, infused with decades of thoughtful improvisational practice, resulting in another unforgettable performance by Mandat.

Similarly, a recurring highlight of each MOXsonic festival has been a performance by the Choir Boys, a duo consisting of UCM assistant professor Jeff Kaiser on trumpet and electronics and saxophonist Andrew Pask. This year as part of the Friday Nightlife concert they performed with Len Lye’s bizarre, hand-drawn 1929 film Tusalava. The results were mesmerizing and disturbing. Although Kaiser and other UCM faculty maintain respectful, low profiles as they support the guest artists during MOXsonic, I was glad space was made for this because live performances by Kaiser are not to be missed.

Before proceeding, a brief disclosure: I should mention I also had a premiere during that Friday of a work entitled “MoxTube” for interactive YouTube instrument, audience participation, and UCM’s clarinet ensemble. It features UCM assistant professor clarinetist Elisabeth Stimpert, her students, and video work by Robin Meiksins. Reviewing my own work would be preposterous, but I wanted to note how supportive the organizers of the festival and UCM’s students were as I developed this peculiar work that uses YouTube as score and instrument, and is built to encourage initial forays into sound mass and clarinet improvisation. Saturday began with one of the most unusual events from the festival: a preview of a nearby “cave” intended for performances during future iterations of MOXsonic. In actuality, it is a human-made space from the late 1800s or early 1900s cut into rock to store commercially sold blocks of ice in the Warrensburg, Missouri, area. We were given a sort of “Cave 101” class by Kaiser as we sized up the single space’s 50-foot deep, 10-foot wide, 7-foot high area.

Kaiser instigated group improvisations with the 40 or so visitors responding en masse to Kaiser’s phonemic prompting. More-adventurous vocalists found increasing comfort in the space and ran through whatever technique came to mind. The cave was not as resonant as I had assumed before the visit, but it was clear that people’s imaginations were churning heavily aboutmusical possibilities for this newly understood place. When MOXsonic resumes in the future, artists will be able to propose projects to be performed in that space.

This last day of the festival continued with demonstrations, 5-minute videos, concerts, a workshop, and a final Nightlife concert. The morning’s espressoAcoustic 2020 event by Kansas City Electronic Music and Arts Alliance (KcEMA) was a particularly refreshing and relaxing morning doppelganger of the Nightlife events. KcEMA’s members including Marble (Meagan Conley and Alberto Racanti), John J. Pearse, Seth Davis, and Spencer Perkins took turns performing, making coffee, and engaging attendees. After a day of concerts and presentations, it was a helpful change to be at a lower-impact event where people had the time to talk and share about their work in a looser way.

Some highlights from Saturday’s concerts included Christina F. Butera’s “Oda a La Vanguardia,” Jay Afrisando’s “The Night Is Dark and Full of Roarers,” and Wombat’s “Generation 3.1.” Butera’s work, sung exquisitely by soprano Jessica Salley, combined strong, bravura singing of a playful text with a rich, interactive electronic setting. Although “Oda” is enjoyable on its own, I am curious to explore more of Butera’s Suite for the Passerby, the collection of soloist and interactive electronic works from which Oda comes. Intriguingly, the larger work was originally designed for a performance at the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park in Kansas City.

Afrisando’s “The Night Is Dark and Full of Roarers” is an improvised work that live-processes his performances of saluang, sarunai, and bansi in an 8-channel setup. Alternating between playing the different instruments and manipulating them in SuperCollider, Afrisando found careful, expressive opportunities that brought the sometimes disparate, percolating moments together.

Wombat, comprising saxophonist Justin K. Comer, electric guitarist Carlos Cotallo Solares, and double bassistWill Yager, delivered a patient, noisy performance with “Generations 3.1.” Against an extended audio playback of grainy, distorted long tones, each performer expertly navigated contorted, grinding sounds.

With MOXsonic centering on live, experimental music (and what these words can mean in the 21st century), I particularly hope it continues to build relationships with improvisers, artists whose practices are less easily quantified, and the scholars who study their work. MOXsonic is the rare festival that is free to apply to and free to attend, with no selling of tickets at the door. It has a distinct chance to connect in long-term ways with musicians who routinely attend conferences, as well as with more skeptical or uncomfortable artists, who may not realize how welcoming the space is to their work. Kaiser, Stimpert, Eric Honour, and Travis Garrison bring an exceptional warmth and interest in community to the festival. This is a space to try things—to share experimental musical or artistic practices that do not necessarily fit in with the electroacoustic festival or music conference mold. I cannot wait to hear what is programmed at the next MOXsonic festival.

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