Music class introduces new frontiers of sound

Adjunct Instructor in Music Peter McCulloch teaches students to use amplifiers and electronic music software to compose their own 30 second clips, and, ultimately, to reconsider their definition of music. Photo: Emily Lavieri-Scull
Adjunct Instructor in Music Peter McCulloch teaches students to use amplifiers and electronic music software to compose their own 30 second clips, and, ultimately, to reconsider their definition of music. Photo: Emily Lavieri-Scull
Adjunct Instructor in Music Peter McCulloch teaches students to use amplifiers and electronic music software to compose their own 30 second clips, and, ultimately, to reconsider their definition of music.
Photo: Emily Lavieri-Scull

Adjunct Instructor in Music Peter McCulloch wants to change your mind about electronic music—it’s not just dance music. “If you’re gonna use a painting analogy, dance music is to the Mona Lisa as what we do is to Picasso,” McCulloch explained. “We’re interested in a much more raw form, and a much more almost sculptural approach to sound, rather than, ‘What’s the melody?’ or ‘What’s the rhythm? So, it’s really sound for sound’s sake.”

McCulloch teaches a year-long class on composing electronic music. Now, his students are preparing their final compositions for a concert on Dec. 13 at 6 p.m. in the Chapel.

The class’ style of electronic music is known as experimental, electroacoustic music. The course first begins with the history of electronic music, before getting to the composition.

“What most people don’t know about electronic music is it has substantially older history,” McCulloch explained. Most think synthesizers began in the 1970s, but the first synth, the Teleharmonium, was played publicly in the 1900s, even at Carnegie Hall, he explained.

“I know at least one or even more hotels in Manhattan actually piped in music from the Teleharmonium. It was gigantic. Took up eight railroad cars,” McCulloch said. “It was like the first elevator music, really.”

After examining the history, the students made graphical scores—non-traditional, visual music notation—for short excerpts of old, electroacoustic pieces from the 50s to 70s.

“I ask them to draw the music, essentially. Look at the parameters and come up with ways of really showing what’s going on, and also showing how things evolve and how they transform,” McCulloch said. “It’s not just drawing pictures but really like a graph of the music over time.”

The next project was to write a short, 30-second composition. McCulloch provided a 30-second long sample of him batting some paper in front of a microphone. “You can use any part of the sound file. You can do whatever you want to it. But you have to use that material, and that material only,” McCulloch said.

“I like to introduce constraints because I think they force people to be creative in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise necessarily be, or might not be, perhaps,” McCulloch continued. “Constraints help. I do this in my own composition. When anything is possible, it’s rare that anything gets done.”

Randy Ortiz ’14 at first thought the 30-second project would be limiting, and that everyone’s project would sound similar—but was surprised to hear everyone’s results were pleasantly different. He found it difficult to work on, because he expected a more traditional, rhythmic sound.

“When I listened to my sound file, I’m like, ‘What kind of picture does this paint in my brain?’ And I drew that. Like crescendos would be lines going up. Decrescendos lines going down. If it had a lot of noise in it, there’d be hashmarks on the paper,” Ortiz said. “The final result was really abstract.”

But as Ortiz adjusted his expectations, it became easier for him. He even appreciates having had the limitations. “It definitely teaches you to how to use what you have, in ways that you never would have thought of before. I never would’ve thought of stretching out a sound sample, and cutting it, and reversing parts, changing the pitch on some parts—using a real quick, less than a second sample,” he said. “I can stretch that out and make a two-minute song.”

Now, Ortiz—alongside the rest of the class—is working on his final project to culminate the semester’s work. Ortiz is manipulating a recording of his dog to create his composition. “I’ve stretched out his vocals and then chopped it up, so I get a lot of different sound files. From just one bark, I get so much out of it. Right now, I got a 30-second intro that’s just my dog—you wouldn’t even recognize it’s my dog at all,” Ortiz explained.

He first experimented with other sounds to evoke a horror atmosphere—the sound of breaking glass, of a creaking door—but found it lacking. Ortiz plans to incorporate an old synthesizer in the class’ recording studio, the Theremin, into his final result.

Marinna Guzy ’13 had wanted to take this class since her freshman year—she has an irrational love of synthesizers, she said—but couldn’t ever fit her schedule around it. It still doesn’t, but Guzy worked it out with McCulloch; it being her senior year, this is her last opportunity. Guzy attends class on Thursdays, and meets McCulloch individually on Tuesdays.

Guzy is taking the class as part of her growing interest in doing sound design for film. “I thought that this would be a very interesting foray into the creation of soundscapes,” Guzy said. “I’m not a film major, but I am planning on going into film after I graduate. I’m an Environmental Studies major.”

For her final project, Guzy recorded herself playing the harp in the harp room of Skinner, and the outside sounds that bleed into the not-so-soundproof room—clanking radiators, outside voices, the doorknob turning.

“My idea for my piece was to take the harp—and at first you recognize it as being the harp—but then the room starts to come alive and have a mind of its own,” Guzy said. “It’s gonna jump off from that and go down the rabbit hole…[the harp is] struggling and it’s being transformed, and it’s being transformed into something less harp-like. And I haven’t exactly figured out who’s going to win, and how it’s going to get resolved quite yet.”

To create the raw materials for her project, Guzy recorded herself plucking individual strings, arpeggios and glissandos on the harp. She angled the microphone to her sound sources many ways to have a wide range of samples to experiment with. She is the middle of the piece now, trying to articulate its structure.

Guzy feels the class has made her broaden her definition of music. “The first half of the semester, we had to do these listening responses, and so we got exposed to a wide variety of electroacoustic music repertoire out there, and I had never really been exposed to,” she said.

“Some of the things we did listen to were a little off the deep end, even for me, and I’m pretty open to these things. And I think that now, music doesn’t necessarily have to have a really clear, delineated structure,” Guzy continued.

Going into next semester, the year-long class will explore interactive electroacoustic music—meaning, music made with algorithms that dynamically process and react to live, musical input.

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