Faculty, Guests to Perform Collaborative Electroacoustic Pieces

Gillian Pasley

The TIMARA basement is uncharted territory for many Oberlin students, even those who frequent the Conservatory. Known for pushing the boundaries of electroacoustic composition and experimental performance, the department is internationally recognized for its impact on the history of electronic music — it was the first conservatory program in the world to focus on electronic composition. The program has a legacy of accomplished and prolific alumni and faculty, and at 8 p.m. tonight in Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin students will get a chance to witness this tradition in a recital featuring TIMARA faculty and guest composers.

The recital features faculty members Peter Swendsen, OC ’99, Tom Lopez, OC ’89, and Aurie Hsu, OC ’96; pianist Thomas Rosenkranz, OC ’99; and many guest composers. Former TIMARA faculty member Lyn Goeringer will premiere a fixed-media piece, and some audiovisual fixed media pieces of Eli Stine, OC ’14, Leif Shackelford, OC ’06, and Asha Tamirisa, OC ’10, will also be projected in the concert hall.

Swendsen, associate professor of computer music and digital arts, said that audience members should expect a wide variety of music.

“Some … might seem familiar in certain ways, [some] might have some tonal content or melodic content and some [won’t] have those familiar things.” He added that the pieces will contain sounds from “materials … that we encounter all the time — just because we’re barraged with sound from so many sources — but we don’t necessarily always [imagine] onstage in a concert hall. So I think [listeners should come] with a sense that you might hear things that you don’t always hear in that environment, but if you take a step back you might realize that they’re part of our experience every day anyway.”

Swendsen’s piece, A sound does not view itself as thought, was created in collaboration with Rosenkranz, an alumnus of the Piano Performance department and a longtime friend of Swendsen’s. The piece was composed as a solution to the difficulties posed by geographic separation: Peter wanted to make a piece with Rosenkranz, an “incredible improviser,” but he was in China at the time and was only able to perform with a piano and an iPad.

The result of this challenge was 73 short sound segments ranging from half a second to 20 seconds in length. These segments are saved in a playlist in iTunes, and every file has an album cover that depicts a tiny part of the piece’s score. Rosenkranz knows each fragment, but the playlist is put on shuffle, so he doesn’t know what order they will come in.

“The little fragments that he sees sometimes represent what is heard and sometimes represent a suggestion for what he might play, so it’s a kind of playful flashcard dialogue where the sign pops up and he has to decide what to do with it,” Swendsen explained.

Hsu, visiting assistant professor in TIMARA, will perform (in) visible, a composition for prepared piano and electronics.

(in)visible is based on a set of improvisations that reflect on abstract concepts such as sleepwalk motion, beauty in unity, echoes, spinning, an invisible dancer, mystic chords, protest rhythms and sympathetic tones. I find ‘hidden’ rhythms and sonorities in the resonances of actions such as playing mallets on bolts, buzzing washers, ping pongs on strings, playing harmonics and using an ebow to vibrate the piano strings, Hsu wrote in an email to the Review. “The electronic part is constructed using these rhythms and sonorities, which in turn influence elements of the acoustic piano part.”

Lopez, associate professor of computer music and digital arts, will present a piece for piano, electronics, and, intriguingly, postcards. The piece finds its inspiration in Picasso’s The Dream and Lie of Franco, a series of 18 individual prints and an accompanying prose poem. Lopez described Picasso’s piece as “his first real political stance against the fascist regime of Franco.” Lopez’s piece, which will pay homage to the Picasso while making a statement of its own, is titled The Dream and Lie of Trump.

“[I’m] using electronics to get sounds out of the piano that don’t sound like a piano,” Lopez said. This is effect accomplished by digitally processing the sound produced by the piano using a laptop. “The piano seems to generate all these sonic landscapes that are actually electronic,” he added.

When asked how a listener unfamiliar with electroacoustic music might approach the piece, Lopez hopes its emotion will be clear.

“If nothing else, what I hope a non-Conservatory listener might get out of it is that it’s really angry. Someone could comment and say ‘this is a really bombastic, angry, resistant piece of music,’” he said. “Regardless of whether you understand the composition or where the sounds come from and how they’re made, hopefully the emotional intent of the piece will be audible.”

For those unfamiliar with the department, it can be confusing to approach new music in a concert setting. Although electroacoustic music emerged around the mid- 20th century, the casual listener probably has not had much exposure to the genre.

“There may be familiar and unfamiliar sounds and sometimes non-traditional musical forms in this genre,” Hsu wrote in an email to the Review. “My advice is to listen with open ears and focus on listening for patterns and timbres that appeal to your sensibility. I like to compare listening to new music to trying new foods. Sometimes new tastes grow on you!”

Swendsen agreed. “I think maybe [it could be seen] as an opportunity for our ears to do something that our eyes do all the time, which is to encounter and then process with our brains really different kinds of sights,” he said. “Every environment gives our visual system a lot to deal with. When you think of how you go through your day, you’re seeing so many different things all the time — colors and textures. We encounter a lot of sounds, but I don’t think our ears are pushed in as many different directions as our eyes are on a regular basis. So in a way you might think of [this recital] as an opportunity to do that exercise for your ears.”

TIMARA Faculty and Guest Recital takes place tonight at 8:00 p.m. in Warner Concert Hall, located at 77 West College Street. The recital is free.