When people complain that classical music is in danger of becoming a museum piece, they’re clearly not thinking about this composer or this museum. Christine Southworth’s debut album was recorded in part at the Boston Museum of Science, where she used not only her voice and the sounds of her friends in the Bang On A Can Ensemble, but also the sounds of the museum’s early electricity-producing devices. A Van Der Graaf Generator and a couple of Tesla Coils provide eerie swoops and glitches, and their rapid oscillating rumblings and occasional snaps as energy is discharged add an element of chance to Southworth’s scores.
“Power Off” is the last track on the album but it might be the best place to start. The snaps, crackles and pops roil beneath a spare texture of wordless voice and carefully-deployed instruments, until about halfway through, when an electric guitar is introduced and a rock concert suddenly threatens to break out. Zap! is full of moments like this, reveling in the early promise of electricity and in its later musical applications. The sounds of post-minimalist and post-rock music also color tracks like “Attraction” and “Charged,” while “Surge” is reminiscent of some of the more rhythmic, computer-driven works of Morton Subotnick.
The sounds of the museum’s electric devices add textures that are unusual enough they could easily become a gimmick if overused. Southworth avoids that by employing them judiciously, and in many places not at all. Their presence here doesn’t just add color to the ensemble; they also bring a suggestion of both whimsy and, just possibly, danger. Neither of which is a bad thing if a musical style wants to avoid becoming a museum piece.