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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

BEAMS marathon brings electronic music to campus

Published: April 29, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

Graphic by Leah Lefkowitz/The Hoot

The Leonard Bernstein Festival is once again upon us, and the campus is abuzz with creativity for this four-day celebration of the arts. Perhaps you’re excited for the BTC production of “Dog Sees God” or Boris’ Kitchen’s new “Armed & Legged” show. Maybe you just can’t wait for Springfest to start on Sunday. And maybe your only connection to the festival is seeing the artwork that’s appearing on the Great Lawn. Regardless of your level of interest, it’s almost impossible to avoid the grand spectacles that bathe our campus for one weekend every spring.

There hasn’t been much talk, however, about the most audacious undertaking of the festival, the 12 hour labor of love that will be Saturday’s BEAMS Electronic Music Marathon. For half a day, the stage at the Slosberg Music Center will be packed with a plethora of talented musicians, performing works that range from Milton Babbitt’s 1964 “Ensembles for Synthesizer” to four pieces that will receive their world premiere.

Each piece incorporates some form of electronic sound that will function on its own or in conjunction with more traditional instruments to explore sonic vistas beyond conventional limits. The program lists ensembles such as “cello with delay line” and “piano/toy piano with 5.1 fixed media.” So will Brandeis student turn out to explore these new musical horizons?

“I don’t know. It’s hard to gauge,” says PhD candidate Christian Gentry, adding, “there’s a chance of it being lost in the shuffle.”

Gentry should know; as the Assistant Producer for Production Oversight and Programming, he has spent the last year working as part of a five-person team headed by Professor Eric Chasalow (MUS) to make the show a reality. On the whole, he feels that the general unfamiliarity with this particular style of music means that most of the attendees will come from off-campus, drawn by the considerable advertising aimed primarily at the close-knit electronic music community.

As a student, professor, composer and concert organizer, Gentry has made a considerable impression, both on the campus as a whole and on my personal Brandeis journey. This semester is the third in a row that I have taken one of his classes and I owe almost everything I know about music theory to his informal, engaging pedagogy. Last year, I covered the premiere of his quartet “No Epiphanies Yet (Stumped)” for The Hoot (“ICE at ’Deis: Graduate compositions impress,” Feb. 5, 2010), and I was fortunate enough to see his latest piece, “Corps Sonore,” premiere on April 15 at the Hartford New Music Festival.

“Corps Sonore” was written on commission from percussionist Bill Solomon for percussion with studio-fixed media. The title comes from the writings of Jean-Philippe Rameau and can be roughly translated as “sonorous body.” It comes with a dual meaning; first, the performers physicality makes him a figurative “sonorous body” as he strikes the instruments, and second, the electronic elements are composed to sound like they evolve from the percussion sounds, making the instrument itself a “sonorous body.” It’s based around a busy but compelling vibraphone line and rich electronic chords caress the listener, creating an appealingly exotic sonic pairing. To write it, Gentry listened to Solomon perform, then improvised on the keyboard using only four fingers as if they were mallets.

Gentry has great respect for electro-acoustic composition, calling it: “something I have a natural inclination towards … a style of composition that I think is very fruitful.” He views it as a study in contrasts. The electronic element is bound only by the imagination of the composer and can be programmed to produce sounds and tempos beyond the ability of any human performer, while the acoustic element retains those limitations. The challenge, then, is to “reign in” the electronics so the two work in tandem, a process in which Gentry believes, “my imagination can go wild a little bit more.”

Gentry will get another chance to hear his piece performed during the Electronic Music Marathon, with Solomon again serving as the performer. His intense gyrations among different percussion devices have to be seen to be believed and Brandeis students will get that chance when “Corps Sonore” opens the 6 to 8 p.m. block of the show.

There will be much more to appreciate throughout the day, which begins at noon with “Violin Phase” by the celebrated composer Steve Reich. Other pieces that catch my eye include “Rotazione,” described as “an audiovisual homage to futurism in three movements;” “Study for Bowed Cardboard,” performed by composer Lou Bunk on something called a “scratch-o-lin;” and a set of three pieces by Michael Lowenstern, which he will perform on the bass clarinet with a live electronic backing. With so much music, something is bound to appeal to any listener’s liking, and you can peruse the complete program with notes at the Department of Music website.

I hope that many Brandeis students take the chance to show up, even if only for a short time. The music may be unfamiliar, but it can also be very rewarding, as “Corps Sonore” taught me. At the Hartford New Music Festival, the piece premiered to a standing-room-only audience. Gentry raved enthusiastically to me about the new music scene in Hartford and the devoted concert curators who work in what is often a thankless genre of music before saying somewhat wistfully, “I wish we could generate that here.”

I wish that, too, and although developing that audience won’t happen overnight, Chasalow, Gentry and the rest of the Electronic Music Marathon team have worked their hardest to ensure it happens eventually. Saturday’s concert is the culmination of years of hard work from talented composers and organizers, and I hope they get the attention that they deserve.