if you could study to be an engineer without being held down by
gravity? A pilot unaffected by G-forces? A singer with unlimited
range? If you could do exactly what you wanted exactly how you wanted
it done? If creativity had no limits beyond your own imagination?
For Conservatory composers in the TIMARA program, it is this experience
of absolute freedom of expression that has lured them into the world
of electronic music and into the reclusive, technology-crammed depths
of the Con.
“I worry less about physical instruments, about physical things,”
TIMARA Professor Gary Nelson said. “Composing acoustical music
can be very constraining.”
The Technology in Music and Related Arts Program story began in
1969, pioneering with two open enrollment courses — one in
electronic music and the other in computer music. In the coming
decades, these two styles merged, but at the time, electronic music
was far more popular. Classes taught by former Con faculty Ollie
Wilson and John Clough (OC ’59) rocketed upwards of 60 students.
Whether this interest in electronic effects was really a wake of
denial following the collapse of the Beatles that January or a dated
intimidation of mainframe computers (typewriters were still the
norm in ’69), no one will know.
But, most importantly, the TIMARA exploration at Oberlin had begun.
In The Early Years
It should be stressed that electronic music and computer music during
the Jurassic era of the ’70s were distinctly separate genres
Electronic music, in technical terms, was a series of synthesizer
notes and patch chords that were hammered into recording tape and
then cut and spliced with a supermarket razorblade. Students in
this genre worked with a mess of identical-looking musical strands
that could be stretched, reorganized and distorted. Like a linear
jigsaw puzzle, these pieces were eventually collected and bundled
together to form a coherent work of art.
Unlike primitive electronic music, computer music is completely
digital, a concept that four decades ago probably sounded just as
alien as piloting to the moon. It required, in fact, more patience
and just as much skill.
Using primitive software, a series of algorithms and the College’s
colossal mainframe computer (far less powerful than the iMacs wiring
the campus today), students typed out their compositions. It was
like a dedicated artist sitting at a present – day Mudd computer
catalog, punching in lines of flickering green numbers and having
faith they would produce the sounds he wanted. A run through Oberlin’s
mainframe and a day and a half later, the computer would be ready
to play what was written. Changes? Corrections? This was the kind
of work you came back to… again and again.
As time progressed and computers became the ultimate tool, replacing
the venerable Moog synthesizers (of which TIMARA still nurtures
one in mint condition), these two types of non-acoustical music
“If electronic music is like playing an orchestra piece and
computer music is like writing the score, now we can both write
and play the score at the same time,” Nelson said.
In the TIMARA cellar of Bibbins, keyboards that often look innocent
and naïve are actually hot-wired to computers and can play
music as complex as the newest game system graphics. Striking on
key on the pearly-white console, one might hear three or four notes,
maybe a clap of thunder, maybe even an entire recording of Pachabel’s
“Cannon” or Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
You might hear the sound of a rushing waterfall patched with the
roar of a motorboat, or a rumble of drums behind the whistling of
air through the trees.
These keyboards are essentially digital recording tape, along with
the computers. They can hold anything, from sounds recorded on the
Moog synthesizer in the studio to any experimental combination that
can be thought up.
The TIMARA exploration goes on.
Electronic music is no ordinary pop techno, nor is it virtual renditions
of stuffy classical, though it has the potential to be either.
“I suspect when you mean ‘electronic music,’ you
mean the ‘weird stuff,’ so-called fringe music,”
TIMARA Assistant Professor Tom Lopez (OC ’89) remarked when
asked about the developing genre. “[But] if you mean music
that requires electricity for its production, then… 99% of
our musical experience is already electronic music.”
TIMARA students have free reign to write in any style they see fit,
and many students produce works that, to the common ear, seem out
of place within the Con’s hallowed halls. But, according to
Nelson, the department admits students with an emphasis on diversity.
This ensures that, of the 30 TIMARA majors, there are 30 different
styles and personalities.
The internet has brought a big boom to the electronic music world.
There is a little-known computer lab in the TIMARA studio that majors
use religiously to find new programs for their works.
“When I started teaching, I knew absolutely everything that
went on [in making electronic music],” Nelson said. “But
now I don’t know as much as many of my students.”
In concert, composers often trudge to the stage and sit at a podium,
their head hidden by a glowing monitor. When the lights switch off,
the audience relaxes to the halo of a red Apple iBook, listening
intently to the music that pours out through the auditorium’s
sound system. Next on the program is another computer work called
“Ninety-Three,” by senior Ben Kamen followed by a recorded
(electronic) selection by first-year Jacob Gotlib titled “Jungle.”
Later on is “Through Ether and Water” by Nicholas Williams
for clarinet and computer. In this piece the computer will listen
to the acoustic performer onstage and answer with a virtual improvisation
of low, rumbling, thunder claps of sound.
TIMARA performances bring the expectation that anything can and
will happen. After Lopez graduated from Oberlin, he remembers the
highlight performances of his college years: “I played hammered
dulcimer in Pauline Oliveros’s “Portrait of Oberlin
Conservatory,” he recalls. “And keyboards in a huge,
extravaganza by Russian composer Sergei Kuryokhin…There were
hundreds of people involved including a marching band and building
and grounds personnel performing on power tools.”
“Oberlin in general attracts smart and creative people,”
Nelson said. “[At some universities] you can’t stand
out, there are just too many people.”
“I believe the TIMARA program is unparalleled,” Lopez
declared. “The quality of the studio facility, and the department
as a whole, is remarkable for a school for undergraduates.”
The TIMARA exploration is far from over.
We are humans who need to express ourselves,” Nelson concluded.
“And some of us need to express ourselves differently.”