Lydia Ayers is a New York State-based composer who often travels and teaches in Hong Kong, Bali, and Java; her worklist of some 70 pieces stretches back to 1971. Ayers is concerned, among other things, with just intonation, Chinese flutes, cats, and Balinese gamelan and she works with a mixed Partch/Indian scale that includes up to 75 tones. Ayers performs on the Woodstock gamelan, a tubular percussion instrument built to her specifications, and uses the computer program CSound to help realize her mega-microtonal pieces.
Albany Records' disc Virtual Gamelan is a survey of Lydia Ayers' compositions from 1977 to 2006. The Balinese approach to structure is clearly apparent here; Ayers applies a Ketchak-type pattern to the word "Jak" in Tala Malika Jak and "cats" in Catjak with amusing results, although Tala Malika Jak goes on a bit too long and one can go crazy listening to it at any length. The rest of the pieces have bell- or gong-like sounds in varying intonations and configurations; although on the surface one may find some of this "new agey," very little of it comes from a familiar sonic world, the constant rhythmic pattern employed in Pendopos being a rare exception. The technical side of Ayers' work is fascinating; she certainly knows intonation down to the smallest cent. Her computer algorhythms devise results that are very pure in tone and sometimes even resemble old-fashioned computer music in a charming way, such as in Ombres des Toiles d'Araignées. In a structural sense, though, much of Ayers' work is amorphous and the lack of a sense of moving forward can be alienating; some may see it as a kind of Gertrude Stein-ish rambling on about nothing. Pieces that utilize a relatively slow pace and a deliberate sense of "story," such as Prime Gongs, Bioluminescence, and Merapi, seem the most successful in both communicating her ideas and providing listening satisfaction. Some of the more clangorous upper partials resulting from the Woodstock gamelan's interface with the computer will simply not be tolerable to certain ears. Nevertheless, those who take an interest in the possibilities of microtones and computer music will find much reward in Virtual Gamelan; there is a clear sense that progress of a kind is being made here, and Ayers' role in its development is definitely worth understanding.