Student Composers Premiere Accessible, Enjoyable Electroacoustic Music


Photo courtesy of Matt Payne

College first-year Alex Chuang performs Green Island Serenade on cello, voice and jitter box during the TIMARA Winter Term final concert Tuesday

Daniel Markus, Managing Editor

With the lights off and many audience members’ eyes closed, the speakers in the David H. Stull Recital Hall growled to life, unleashing a fizzing array of overlapping synth sounds. The various beeps and hums that followed comprised College first-year Fox Milenski’s “The Floor Shatters Beneath Me,” one of 11 pieces premiered Tuesday by students that took the TIMARA intensive course over Winter Term. Taught by double-degree senior Judy Jackson and Conservatory senior Hunter Brown, the course is meant to be equivalent to TECH 101: Introduction to Electroacoustic Music and prepare students not intending to major in TIMARA for further study in the department.

“We made a point to include pieces of music … that weren’t necessarily experimental electronic [or] contemporary classical … and tried to show the entire spectrum of what you can do with electronic music, and not just this narrow band of it,” Jackson said. In addition to teaching composers from the canon of electroacoustic music, such as Pierre Schaeffer and Pauline Oliveros, Brown and Jackson also incorporated techno artists such as Juan Atkins and pop influences like Holly Herndon into the group’s multiple weekly listening sessions.

In addition to introducing a broad spectrum of electronic music, material taught in the course was similarly diverse; subjects included the history of electronic music, recording and editing technique, proficiency in various software environments, analog and digital synthesis and some special topics, including MaxMSP and Jitter, two advanced data-processing programs. Jackson and Brown’s approach to teaching a diverse array of material and techniques was clearly effective, as evidenced by the concert’s highly varied program: Pieces ranged from electronic pop beats to live processing of acoustic percussion to spurts of intense noise and virtually everything in between.

The program began with three live performances for percussion and electronics; cello, voice and electronics; and voice and MIDI control respectively, before moving on to several fixed-media compositions that were played back over the speaker system. Despite being marred by a few technical issues, including slow-loading software, some minor feedback and a broken projector in Stull, the pieces were generally excellent — the music held my interest throughout the concert program. From what I could tell, the same was true of most of the audience, which grew steadily throughout show, forcing many in the audience to stand at the back of the recital hall.

In addition to being enjoyable, each piece showed thoughtfulness in method and style on the part of the composer. Two works were particularly impressive: Green Island Serenade by College first-year Alex Chuang and Florida by College first-year Sophie Shalit. Green Island Serenade, which utilized live sound processing of audio recordings, cello and voice, moved through numerous changes in dynamics and timbre smoothly, while showing a successful integration of acoustic sound sources with electronic processing and recorded sounds. The piece was also meant to feature video processing with Jitter, something that would have enriched the piece even further but for Stull’s broken projector. Florida, Shalit’s fixed media piece, was breathtakingly beautiful. It packed clear emotional character and displayed thoughtfulness in form on the part of Shalit and could fit quite easily alongside compositions by TIMARA majors on another concert program in the department.

Perhaps more than any single piece though, the show’s variety was its greatest strength. In spite of the fact that much of the music lacked substantive melody, rhythm or harmony — something that is often true of experimental electronic music and can be bothersome to some listeners — consistent changes in style and method allowed audience members to follow the technique used just as they might follow the melody in a classical piece. After the show, audience members could be heard discussing how various sounds in a piece came to be with its composer. There is no question that the concert thoroughly engaged its audience, both during the performances themselves and after the music ended.

In addition to equipping students with the skills to successfully compose electroacoustic music, Jackson and Brown managed to do so in a way that produced pieces that were at the same time accessible, enjoyable and engaging for the audience, all in the span of three weeks. That is no small feat.

Experimental electronic music is often misunderstood, coming off as cumbersome, highly rhetorical, obtuse and, most unfortunately, unpleasant. On Tuesday however, very few of those sentiments seemed present. To quote David Byrne, “It seems that creativity, whether birdsong, painting or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius — the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work — seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context.” And it seems that what Jackson and Brown’s students achieved with their concert seems to be at least close to Byrne’s standard — music almost perfectly suited to its context and audience.

That is a great achievement, because ultimately, most of us that have composed electroacoustic music, including myself, want the same thing as any songwriter, musician or producer: We want our music to be heard and appreciated. With a new group of students introduced to the field of electroacoustic music, an open-minded and appreciative audience and several new pieces, it’s more likely that electroacoustic will be understood and enjoyed by the Oberlin community and beyond, something that should make Jackson, Brown and their students proud.