Any artistic cutting edge can come with the sensation of falling off a cliff. The listener is bewildered for a bit, until someone (often the composer) shows how the most forbidding concoctions have precedents in the past.
Rarely, though, has the road map to such precedents been established with the concrete as it was in a talk before Bhob Rainey's Axon Ladder Friday at Vox Populi. Was this an advanced calculus class?
At the same time such well-known composers as Stephen Hartke and Louis Karchin unveiled their response to the visual stimuli at the Barnes Foundation in a Network for New Music concert, Rainey was at the gallery wrestling with music based on mathematical abstractions of squid neurons so big they were studied in the pre-high-tech era.
Some skepticism is warranted - attention-grabbing concepts don't necessarily unleash worthy music. Richard Reed Parry's "stethoscope music," performed here in tempo to the human heartbeat with great fanfare last fall, turned out to be inconsequential. Composers often over-talk their pieces, but without the prior explanation, Rainey's 15-minute sound collage might have seemed fairly random. Instead, it deeply stimulated the imagination.
A fairly recent arrival in Philadelphia, Rainey, 42, has long built fascinating pieces around discovered sound, whether field recordings or a 1950s family-made Christmas recording he found in an antiques shop. The latest piece downloadable on his website (bhobrainey.net) is Levitate, which arose from tracking bubble collisions in a lava lamp-like device, yielding effects almost like a rain stick but with occasional plucked acoustic guitar strings.
Conceptually, Rainey's Axon Ladder would seem to be along the same lines as Strauss' more graphic tone poems, such as Death and Transfiguration, even though his "sonification" of the equation embodying neuron activity is presumably too abstract to yield squid enshrinement. Yet Axon Ladder's aggressive buzzing for me embodied the animal instinct to survive, its willful mutability suggesting how instinct constantly reacts to environment, occasionally exploding into attack mode.
More purely aesthetic considerations: The piece was built from foreground and background sounds, and a white-ish noise backdrop that morphed into something evoking a distant chorus of wolves. At times, you sensed some being trying to communicate from another universe.
Rainey says he looks for sounds resembling something you know, but not quite. Here, he succeeded, though you must meet the piece a bit more than halfway. Though he follows many John Cage precepts, he makes Cage sound folksy.