Why are there so few large ensembles in experimental music? Most groupings tend to top out at five or six, with notable exceptions such as the INSUB Meta Orchestra (who recently even organised a festival of experimental orchestras). Surely economics plays a big part in it, along with the sheer practicalities of trying to get more than a handful of musicians together at the same time and (usually) in the same place. Electronic tools can now be used to achieve the same densities and dynamic range that once required a mass assembling of players. I suspect aesthetics also has an influence: Western orchestral music is generally associated with the monumental and monolithic (cf. Wagner or Mahler’s work for 100+ musicians), whereas experimental music has tended to privilege the small, the contingent, the provisional, and the transient. How to realise the ideals of the latter using the tools of the former?
The ensemble brought together by composer Santiago Astaburuaga for his piece “grado de potencia #1” is hardly Wagnerian in scale, numbering 14 members. Still, it’s a pretty large group by today’s standards. Some of the instruments heard have their origins in Western orchestral music, such as bassoon, trumpet, and viola; others, such as industrial sanding discs, sine waves, and no tonearm turntable, conform more to expectations of experimental music. Regardless, the multiple families of instruments are frequently blended in dense, pleasingly discordant harmonies, together yet separate; I hear no hierarchies emerge among them. It’s easy to get lost among the myriad groupings of pitches and tones, separated by pauses. It’s like walking through a reinvented shopping centre, each shop in turn enticing you with its own beguiling sound world.
Often it seems that the unison of Astaburuaga’s orchestra is disintegrating or being brought into question, either by the breaking down of the ensemble into smaller groups, or by the sheer diversity of timbres and tonalities and pitches heard. Multiplicities, rather than a single corps. The structure of the piece, split as it is into multiple small sections without any recognisable theme or motif to unite them, underlines this notion. It’s no easy task to bring together a large group of musicians in a way that brings out the potential of multiple agents acting together, but without allowing the sounds to congeal into a monolithic false unity. Astaburuaga and his ensemble of thoughtful, intelligent musicians achieve this task with humming, vibrating intensity, and when the whole group plays at the same time — as in the shifting final chord — the effect is both powerful and beautiful.