Musical instruments sometimes evolve in mirror with their techniques; as instruments become more standardized, the playing becomes more varied and subtle. Akiko Hatakeyama’s performance at Brookline’s Cafe Fixe on Tuesday night — part of the reliably adventurous Experimental Coffee House series presented by Non-Event — featured by-now usual electronic means: a laptop, software, an interface, and not much else, far from the rooms full of ad hoc equipment that once characterized the genre. But, in a 40-minute, single-piece set, Hatakeyama — sound artist and composer, a member of the Providence-based OpenSignal collective — combined those digital means with more old-fashioned instruments on equal, flexible terms.
Hatakeyama’s sound source was live, a melodica and a flute, played into a microphone; the melodica was first, stately and melancholy, a haze of reverb burnishing the sound to a conceptual distance. Recording as she went, Hatakeyama layered and looped that playing into buzzing strata, as the music’s echo and resonance took on a life of its own, becoming more prominent, denaturing and varying the sound: a trademark of one of Hatakeyama’s teachers, Alvin Lucier, though here used in a more gentle way. The flute lent a more pure, fragile element, layered then subsumed into the mix.
It was a digital palimpsest: layers brought in, then effaced; the actual event — that original, recorded playing — broken up and blurred, an increasingly hazy memory. The next section was, perhaps, commentary on that phenomenon: slow-tolling, more obviously processed chords, a cortege of metallic overtones. As the harmonies turned more conventionally hopeful — a shift from minor-tinged modality to an expectant subdominant — the fuzz and feedback increased, a noisy scrim. The sound of the flute returned, a duet, then a trio, with clouds of electronic echoes that became an overcast background for the melodica. That instrument and its feedback electronically merged into heavy, rough cloth, wrapping the end of the piece in a blanket — or a shroud.
Even the instrumentation created a play of memory, of past and present. The real-time digital looping and processing was up to date, but rooted in the oldest of musical sources: breath, with slow, deliberate rhythms keyed by respiration. The sophistication of the processing conjured a historical illusion: The flute’s limpid sine waves and the melodica’s frizzier pile of overtones sounded like primitive synthesizers alongside their complex, software-generated echoes. The somber elegance of Hatakeyama’s music exemplified the maturity of electronic instruments: neither foreground novelty nor background invisibility, but situated with the rest of the musical toolbox, awaiting inspired intervention.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.