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Music review

Electronic music reverberates with audience at City Hall

Keith Fullerton Whitman on synthesizer during his concert last Friday at Boston City Hall.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/Boston Globe

It’s not often that you witness a concert of adventurous electronic music within the confines of City Hall. Last Friday, Non-Event — the Boston area’s force for experimental music — unveiled a free performance by the noted local electronic musician and composer Keith Fullerton Whitman in City Hall’s giant concrete mezzanine. The concert will hopefully pave the way for many more experimental concerts at City Hall in the future. The mezzanine was filled with interested listeners who braved the torrential rain to attend Whitman’s last big solo concert in Boston. (Whitman will be moving to Australia next month, after nearly 25 years of being a fixture in the Boston music scene.)

The concert — an event that was part of HUBweek, which is founded by The Boston Globe, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Massachusetts General Hospital — opened with welcoming remarks by Julie Burros, chief of the mayor’s office of arts and culture, and a brief introduction by the architect Chris Grimley, coauthor of “Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston.” City Hall’s hulking concrete structure is a notable example of Brutalist architecture — reviled by some as a monstrosity since its inception in 1968.


But the space has its own modern beauty, and the thick, heavy concrete surfaces lead to interesting acoustics. In Whitman’s brief introductory remarks before performing a sprawling, fascinating 45-minute work for modular synthesizer, titled “Redactions,” he said that he had long been fascinated with the building, and made his own field recordings in and around the structure in the 1990s.

Whitman interleaved those old recordings of City Hall — the low hum of people talking, a street performer playing guitar outside, the sounds of birds — into “Redactions.” In effect, Whitman’s piece was a real-time work of musique-concrete, a genre of tape music originally invented in the 1940s in France, which wove sounds from the environment into elaborate, often beautiful electronic collages. Whitman’s piece was tremendously varied in its range and emotional depth.


Bright, chirpy passages gave way to a feeling of dread — the resonances of an empty, haunted building at night, the dark, foreboding clatter of something tumbling down the stairs. Then, the piece transformed into something altogether more beautiful. Hard metallic sounds gave way to more bird sounds and a soft staccato pitter-patter, and the occasional snatch of a guitar song. This, in turn, gave way to cascades of arpeggios, and a sudden luminous melody that rose like a glittering cloud above the audience.

The reverberant quality of the heavy, cavernous space made the sounds seem to hang in midair, chiming for several seconds as they added into other sounds being created. Walking around and above the mezzanine during the performance had a marvelous effect, too; the music sounded slightly but intriguingly different depending on your point of view.


Presented by Non-Event, the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Culture, and HUBWeek. At Boston City Hall, Oct. 9

Geeta Dayal can be reached at