Octave 9, the name of Seattle Symphony’s new performance venue, hints at the sense of potential yet to be tapped: The modern concert grand piano is limited to a standard range below eight octaves. Designed for artists who want to reach for that metaphorical extra octave and beyond, the space has been outfitted with cutting-edge digital acoustic and visual technology.
Already, Octave 9 has hosted the first collaborative concert curated by the season’s composer-in-residence, Derek Bermel. On March 10, the clarinetist-composer presented and performed in an intriguing exploration of the confluence of classical and jazz elements in the history of American music, partnering with Seattle artist Barbara Earl Thomas to include a layer of visual commentary.
Seattle Symphony envisions Octave 9 as a place for audiences to experiment with the concert experience as well. On March 23 and 24, the Symphony is presenting a nonstop marathon of contemporary music at Octave 9 that will start in the early evening, proceed through nightfall and daybreak, and conclude exactly 24 hours later: the entire life cycle of a day, matched with music as well as visual accompaniment presented on the space’s reconfigurable bank of surrounding screens.
“I’m especially excited about the immersive state we are able to harness and explore, between the acoustics and all the visual capabilities we have worked on,” says cellist and interdisciplinary artist Seth Parker Woods, who has just begun his tenure as Octave 9’s first artist-in-residence (to run through the end of the coming season).
Parker Woods is one of a group of artists who were invited to curate individual hourlong segments of the marathon. Asked to plan for the hour from 8 to 9 p.m., he has devised a program (in which he will also be playing cello) featuring four composers whose works involves interactions between live musicians and electronics.
Pieces like “Not Alone” by visionary musical thinker George Lewis (which appears on Parker Woods’s debut album) and “Dam Mwen Yo,” which he describes as “a powerful ode to black femininity” by Nathalie Joachim (flutist with the ensemble Eighth Blackbird), are part of a mix that aims “to showcase what the space is and what it can do.”
The segment also offers a foretaste of what Parker Woods is planning for his residency throughout the coming season. “I’m looking for new narratives relating to people who need to be showcased musically and visually. I hope to use this platform to bridge gaps with underground currents in contemporary music.” He’s been involved in the planning for Octave 9 “since the hard-hat stage” and is eager to use the space’s new resources “to find ways to collaborate with symphony musicians and audience that haven’t been done yet.”
Melody Parker is one of the more than 50 living composers whose work will be performed during the marathon. She is also an acoustic engineer and served as the lead designer for the intricate Meyer Sound acoustic system that forms Octave 9’s sonic infrastructure.
Parker has written a brand-new sound installation piece to test the potential of a Meyer system known as “Spacemap.” This technology allows musicians to manipulate in real time the complex network of speakers (many of them nested and hidden in a honeycomb design suspended from the low ceiling).
“My piece uses the space itself as a compositional device,” explains Parker. After an ensemble of acoustic musicians prerecorded the music, she processed it through the Spacemap program to create an installation that will become part of Octave 9’s permanent library (and usable as a demonstration piece for artists learning about the space). It will debut as the very first piece in the marathon.
“What I imagined for this space is a low sound wafting around the room with the bright, glistening sound of vibraphone overhead,” she says. These familiar sounds from acoustic instruments emerge from unexpected spaces in the room, turning into “spatial gestures that go with the musical gestures.”
Parker explains how the title, “Harkening,” occurred to her: “I’m pregnant with my first child. In utero, she’s especially responsive to very low sounds. She has been listening! Composing this piece in parallel with my pregnancy has been pretty magical, because it’s reinforced an attitude of wonder and curiosity toward each, the music and the baby.”
Another segment, featuring only women composers, has been co-curated by Seattle Symphony violinists Mikhail Shmidt and Elisa Barston. An acclaimed longtime champion of new music in Seattle, Shmidt says Octave 9 is an exciting new opportunity for him and his fellow musicians. “It may be quite small, but without the pressure of a big hall. And it gives us more space to experiment, to workshop, to collaborate with composers. And the technical possibilities are something new.”
Overall, according to Elena Dubinets, Seattle Symphony’s vice president of artistic planning, the contemporary music marathon aims “to celebrate the diversity of music while also expanding its boundaries.” That means not only stylistic boundaries — “from John Luther Adams to jazz to electronic music,” for example — but also “by reinforcing previously unthinkable connections” between live music and electronics, manipulable acoustics and immersive visual elements.
Dubinets curated the overarching vision for the whole marathon, which is divided into three “acts”: “Nightfall” (5 p.m. to midnight), “Dreams” (midnight to 8 a.m.) and “Daybreak” (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Acts I and III are each divided into separately curated hours featuring changing formations: solo instrumentalists (including several Seattle Symphony musicians), solo singers and small chamber groups.
Act II will premiere an all-electronic, live sound installation by locally based composer Marcin Pączkowski that will interact with the chance noises and movement of the audience — as will the visuals. Fans of composer John Luther Adams can then look forward to an early morning in the form of his “songbirdsongs.”
Dubinets says: “We want to position classical music as a dynamic art form relevant to the current conditions of our ever-connected world.”
Seattle Symphony presents Contemporary Music Marathon, 5 p.m. Saturday, March 23, to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 24; Octave 9 Raisbeck Music Center at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $75 for each of three acts, $200 for marathon pass to all three acts; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org