Oberlin Blogs

Ensembles and Improvisation

March 6, 2023

Claire O’Brocta ’23

Whether it’s a chamber group, choir, or orchestra, if you know someone in the Conservatory, they’ve likely participated in a music ensemble for at least one of their classes. As for TIMARA majors like me, you typically don’t see us playing in orchestra concerts (unless the TIMARA major in question is a double major in performance). We are, however, still required to participate in 2 ensembles to complete our degree, and there are so many options to fulfill that requirement.

It’s my last semester at Oberlin, and even though I only needed to take 2 ensembles in order to graduate, I’m currently enrolled in my fourth. The first one I took was the TIMARA department’s Silent Film Ensemble, all the way back in the spring semester of my sophomore year. Silent Film Ensemble is relatively new; it first existed in the 2010s as a student-run chamber group, and wasn’t offered formally in the course catalog for the first time until I took it in 2020. At its simplest, Silent Film Ensemble involves its members performing sound to silent videos. Videos used include everything from actual old silent films, to student-created animations, to random videos from YouTube. The sound-making devices used by students in the ensemble range just as much as the video we perform to. Traditional instruments are used in both typical and experimental ways, and several members don’t use traditional instruments at all, instead opting for laptops, homemade electronics, or found objects. Something that makes Silent Film Ensemble truly unique is that members don’t have to play music at all if they don't want to; there is always an option to conduct the group or run the mixing board instead. There is also freedom in how the music in Silent Film Ensemble is played; it can be anywhere on the spectrum between pre-composed and completely improvised.

When signing up for Silent Film Ensemble my sophomore year, I was excited by the experimentality and flexibility of it. I came to Oberlin with a background of playing music in a more traditional sense, and through free improvisation exercises in my TIMARA studio class, I began to see the fun in breaking away from that. I played my electric bass in this ensemble, but most of what I played was extended techniques and experimentation that turned my bass into more of a sound effect generator than a melodic instrument. Sadly, this iteration of Silent Film Ensemble never got to perform live due to the nature of the spring 2020 semester. In order to adapt to the world of Zoom class, our final project became film scoring. Some students created videos, others scored them. This was a decent way to make the spirit of the ensemble work in the circumstances, but of course I wished we could’ve performed for real. Fortunately, this was my first ensemble experience in Oberlin, so I still had to take at least one more to complete my graduation requirements.

I took my second (and what I thought would be my final) ensemble in fall 2021, the first semester of my fourth year. This semester was right after I lived in Oberlin with three of my friends for the summer, and all four of us were planning on taking this ensemble together, which I was really looking forward to. The ensemble in question is the Oberlin Improvisation and Newmusic Collective, abbreviated as OINC (yes, like the sound pigs make!). As the other faculty-led ensemble in the TIMARA department, OINC has a few similarities to Silent Film Ensemble. The instrumentation is just as experimental and varied, and several of the techniques are shared, but there are some notable differences too. In OINC, everyone has to perform (there are no student conductors or engineers), and there is no video to guide the playing. Instead, we frequently used improvisation prompts to determine what kind of sounds to make. These prompts were often in words, but could also be something like a scribbled drawing of lines and shapes. Our homework often consisted of creating these prompts, and we would play them in class the next week. My favorite prompts in OINC were always the silly ones, like the sound of a squirrel stuck in the ceiling, or the anger of waiting in an endless line at a dining hall. I played a selection of amplified found objects as my OINC instrument, including (but not limited to) paper, a milk frother, and an Altoids tin with a chain inside. This fun assortment of sounds was so inspiring to me creatively, because when else am I going to think about how to sonify a scurrying squirrel with a stack of paper? Maybe in sound design, but the real-time aspect and instrumental constraints of OINC provided a new challenge in doing so. 

My OINC class was scheduled to perform at the end of the fall 2021 semester, but like Silent Film Ensemble, it was canceled because of the pandemic. Our replacement this time was a YouTube premiere of recordings we made in class throughout the term. The closest I got to performing for OINC was at my ensemble-mate Tempest’s senior recital the following May. The two of us had intended on performing the aforementioned squirrel piece at our OINC concert, and because we couldn’t, they added it to their recital program instead.

After OINC, despite never performing live for an Oberlin ensemble, I had completed my requirement of taking them. Because of this, when first planning my schedule for the following spring, I didn’t even think to consider taking another ensemble. That is, until I did the math. As a double-degree, my schedule planning has always involved a lot of math, usually in the form of counting credits to figure out how many and what kind I still need. At this point I had three semesters left, and 55 credits to go. 30 of these credits were covered by Conservatory requirements, and 23 of them specifically could not be in the Conservatory. That left two credits that could be anything I wanted, and I ended up taking Oberlin Synthesizer Ensemble in the spring of my fourth year to fulfill them.

Oberlin Synthesizer Ensemble, abbreviated as synth ensemble or OSE, is a student-run ensemble with a faculty sponsor in TIMARA, much like how Silent Film Ensemble used to be. Synth ensemble met in Studio 4, where TIMARA’s collection of analog synthesizers is housed. We spent most rehearsals each choosing a different synth to play on for group improv, though sometimes we tried out games and exercises that changed up our configuration. My favorite of these games, dubbed Reverse Synth Jenga by our members, involved creating a patch on a synthesizer and lining up behind it. Each member would take turns making a single change to this synth patch, and we would see how the sound evolved over time. Our membership included 4 people who were in OINC the previous semester, and some new faces as well. One of the former OINC members was my friend Hamish, who used their extensive knowledge of analog synthesizers to lead us in improv and fill any knowledge gaps we had about the workings of a synth. I wrote a bit more about OSE in this blog, which included a mention about the infeasibility of live performance with this ensemble. Alas, OSE left me three ensembles in and still performance-less.

Much like after OINC, I didn’t intend on taking any more ensemble classes once I was done with OSE. Schedule-wise, I had a very clear-cut fifth year ahead of me: 36 credits total, breaking down to 18 per semester (an excitingly small number for double-degrees). Each of these semesters, I needed to take 10 credits in the Conservatory and 8 in the College. Simple, right? Well, I decided to complicate things a bit. Last fall, I discovered the brand new Conservatory minor in Improvisation. After partaking in three improvisation-based ensembles that I thoroughly enjoyed, I figured this minor would be perfect for me. What’s even more perfect is that all I needed to take in order to complete the minor was one last improv-based ensemble. It did bump my load for this spring up to 20 credits, but that’s still fewer than I’ve taken most semesters here, and I’m getting a minor out of it. Perhaps best of all, the class I’m taking to complete this minor is another go at Silent Film Ensemble, and guess what? On March 4th 2023, after three years of waiting, we finally got to perform live.

Our live performance was part of the Oberlin Improv Symposium, a three-day event celebrating all forms of musical improvisation. We performed at the Student Showcase part of the symposium, which featured four other student ensembles in addition to us. Our 14-person group was divided into two sections of seven, who each created live sound for a different video. The two videos couldn’t have been less alike: my group played along to an excerpt of a documentary about frogs that we found on YouTube, while the other ensemble members played to a 100-year-old silent film. Both groups performed super well, and now we’re back in the brainstorming process, deciding what we want a second performance later this spring to entail.

I’m graduating at the end of the semester, so I won’t have the opportunity to try out any more Oberlin ensembles. However, there are still many ensemble options outside of the ones I chose to be a part of, so I wanted to highlight a handful more that are favorites among my fellow TIMARA majors. First off, there are a few singing groups open to those who audition, including the massive choir Musical Union, and the smaller medieval vocal group Collegium Musicum. TIMARA students have also enjoyed Javanese Gamelan, where members learn to play traditional Indonesian percussion instruments. The final group I’d like to mention is Creative Music Lab, another improvisatory ensemble that is popular among TIMARA majors. In fact, CML performed a few acts before Silent Film Ensemble at the Student Improv Showcase, and some of the members were part of both groups! Even if you’re not a TIMARA major, all of the ensembles I’ve mentioned in this blog are open to you too, and I highly recommend taking at least one during your time at Oberlin.

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