As a composer and trumpeter who has worked extensively in avant-garde, Minimalist and serious electronic veins (as well as in the acid jazz genre and other urban scenes), Ben Neill has long understood music to be a spatial art every bit as much as a temporal one. Whether working in the academic environment or in the club world, Neill’s compositions and recordings treat sounds as matter – as discrete objects and functions arrayed in the stereo field or in the round, sometimes over groove, sometimes as pure spatial-scape. This sensitivity makes Neill a likely candidate for high-concept environmental composition, music for unconventional venues and music wed to the particularities of the performance space.
Or so believes the New York State Council on the Arts, who helped fund Neill’s new environmental composition Manitoga, a piece for brass quintet and electronics to be premiered on Saturday, July 26 on the grounds that share its name: Manitoga, the estate of the famous 20th-century industrial designer Russell Wright. In keeping with the spirit of innovative industrial design, Manitoga is a piece conceived and performed on novel metal instruments. The brass ensemble will play sculptor Carol Szymanski’s “phonemophones”: bugles in the form of letters. Neill himself will play the mutantrumpet, the hybrid acoustic/digital instrument that has been the focus of his work as a performer and as an instrument-designer for most of his recent career.
Environmental music presents its own unique set of limitations and liberations. The first freedom regards the directionality of music. Since they are not bound to the dimensions and orientation of the stage, composers can play in ingenious ways with points of sound origination, as Neill does in Manitoga. The performers will emerge from the woods, engaging in a dialogue across the space, pulling in toward and ultimately convening for a conventional stage performance at Manitoga’s quarry pool and waterfall.
The Garrison resident Neill’s composition connects to the immediate environment on multiple levels. It juxtaposes the iconic military musical theme “Taps” – typically played at dusk and at funerals and heard often in the distance, across the river at West Point – with imitative musical evocations of the natural environment, of birds and insects. It’s a strange postmodern canon and call-and-response between the natural and the industrial, the wild and the civilized. It is also Neill capturing what he might hear on any summer evening by the Hudson, and analyzing it for its rich musical and cultural suggestions.
Premier of Ben Neill’s Manitoga, Saturday, July 26, 7 p.m., $25/$10, Manitoga: The Russell Wright Design Center, 584 Route 9D, Garrison; (845) 424-3812, www.russelwrightcenter.org.