TIMARA Hosts Expansive Sendoff for John Talbert


Photo by Byan Rubin, Photo editor

Assistant Professor Aurie Hsu performs a piece to electric drums Thursday evening in Clonick Hall as part of a weekend celebration of John Talbert’s career.

Victoria Garber, Arts Editor

John Talbert, who for 38 years has run a tight ship as the technical director of the TIMARA department, will retire this spring. The department has organized a weekend festival that kicked off yesterday and will run through Saturday evening to honor his decades behind the scenes, maintaining vintage equipment, keeping the department stocked with the latest and greatest technology, running tech support for events and teaching students integral skills from circuit design to interface building.

“He’s really good at all of those things. He’s done an amazing job of staying up-to-date in a field that changes very rapidly,” said Associate Professor and TIMARA chair Peter Swendsen.

Perhaps his most profound impact has been as an educator, with a reputation among students for being as patient as he is eccentric in his teaching methods.

“He’s a very good teacher and does a great job of explaining very complicated topics — usually taught at engineering school — to a bunch of weirdo musicians,” said Will Johnson, OC ’16, who recently graduated from the program.

“He was, in spite of my inability to comprehend electronics at 8:30 in the morning at the age of 19, a great teacher and kind of innovative,” said TIMARA alumnus Travis Johns, OC ’04, who performed alongside current faculty yesterday in Clonick Hall. “One of the biggest memories that I have [is] him illustrating how a circuit worked by proceeding to walk around the room above chairs, over tables, on the piano and back down and [saying] ‘See? It always comes back to the same place.’”

His reputed patience does not translate into permissiveness when it comes to how the equipment under his supervision is handled.

“He’s not afraid to tell people when they’re not treating the gear right,” said Conservatory sophomore Ko Takasugi-Czernowin. “I think that’s really important, that kind of honesty. … He knows so much stuff.”

Talbert’s expertise lies mainly in building innovative electronic instruments from scratch, including stand-alone contraptions that can be played or programmed on their own and peripheral devices designed as intermediaries between existing interfaces, instruments and their users. Many students have come away from his classes with the fundamental knowledge and flexibility to build what they need to create new sounds and visuals, somewhat mitigating the economic and other restrictions of what is commercially available.

“[With Talbert], it was, ‘Here are the fundamentals of electronics. Let’s step it back a bit and realize that we can take this into our hands and own every aspect of the creation, from the instruments we make, to the music we write, to the tools that we record them on,’” Johns said.

Talbert’s innovation allows TIMARA to use a lot of open-source tech, which is less expensive and much more flexible by design. For example, he has recently been working with Arduino technology, using the programmable boards to control the sounds of unique instruments, created by embedding sound chips from things like old video games into other objects, like radios. Talbert has a long history of such invention, and has developed projects with numerous students and faculty members.

“For a long time he and my predecessor, Gary Nelson, … collaborated on an instrument called the midi horn,” Swendsen said. “[It] was one of the first fully-functional, breath-controlled, expressive instruments that Gary, who was a former tuba player, could play with all of the training he already had [and] that could control things on the computer.”

Several former TIMARA students Talbert helped to inspire, who have returned to Oberlin to participate in the festivities and perform alongside current students and faculty throughout the weekend. There will also be a series of presentations and workshops.

“We have some students who have been working this semester on using some of the many instruments that John has developed over the years,” Swendsen said. “They’ll be presenting that work and performing with some of those instruments. John will also be talking about what he’s done in his time here.”

Talbert may not teach the most musically exciting classes TIMARA has to offer, but to many alumni, the knowledge and experience gained from his courses have been fundamental to their musical careers.

“You don’t really see the significance or the impact [of them],” Johns said. “But after years … it finally dawns on you that … this [material] is super heavy, and … even now with my [work] I owe it to him, because while I didn’t quite grasp what he was saying then, afterwards it really laid the foundation for everything that I’m doing now.”

The concerts will feature a variety of creative work, including live music and dance performances, fixed-media and video pieces, robotics and improvisations with homemade instruments. Student projects will be on display for an open-house tour of TIMARA’s basement studios this evening.

Professional instrument designer Peter Blasser, OC ’02, an alumnus of the program, will lead two instrument-building workshops in which several students will receive instruction on how to create homemade instruments. He’s spent his career designing and constructing all kinds of synthesizers and other instruments, and has assisted the program in collecting materials for the workshops.

“That’s very much a good way to celebrate John because he has really done a lot of that kind of design and building of instruments over the years,” Swendsen said. “It’ll be nice to have all these new instruments come into being during the weekend.”

All events are free and open to the public:

Open house in the TIMARA studios Friday, March 3, 8 p.m.

Concert featuring performances by TIMARA faculty and alumni in David H. Stull Recital Hall Saturday, March 4, 1:30 p.m.

Concert featuring music by College and Conservatory faculty and Oberlin community members in Stull Recital Hall Saturday, March 4, 3 p.m.

Concert featuring performances by current and former TIMARA students in Fairchild Chapel Saturday, March 4, 8 p.m.