A Look into Sonic Arts at Oberlin

Summer program devoted to electroacoustic music invites students to plug and play.

August 10, 2016

Julie Gulenko '15

four electroacoustic musicians.
Sonic Arts Workshop instructors Eli Stine, Eastman Presser, Francis Wilson, and Matt Omahan (from left).
Photo credit: Julie Gulenko '15

We sat down with Matt Omahan '16, a past participant and current teacher in Oberlin's Sonic Arts Workshop summer program for young musicians. Like many participants in the workshop, Omahan went on to major in Technology in Music and Related Arts—TIMARA—at Oberlin.

How does it feel to be on the faculty now? What is your role on the faculty this summer?

It feels really funny to be on the faculty now because I did this workshop five years ago as a participant. I graduated from the summer program, and then I came here to study for four years. It’s a fantastic feeling to give back in this way. My role on the SAW staff is a hybrid between a professor and a secretary. We teach classes, guide listening sessions, and grade assignments. For instance, we sit down in a room, we all listen to the assignments together, and then we do peer feedback. In a lot of ways, I’m not saying what worked and what didn’t—I’m letting the peers talk. It’s a little bit of everything.  Occasionally, I’m a lab monitor late at night when people are scrambling to do their projects at 11 p.m.

What is the average day like at SAW?

It’s packed! The day starts at 9:30 a.m. and is filled with class sessions throughout the morning and afternoon, and includes lunch and an afternoon break. Finally, the day ends with a listening session. So it’s totally packed. Between all of these classes—especially the afternoon ones—there’s a lot of lab time for people just to work on their final projects and the assignments we get during the week.

What type of equipment are students using at SAW?

Two of our favorites have been the field recorders and analog synths. Our workshop participants have access to all of our synthesizers, and we’re in the room to explain how to use them. Most of the synthesizers don’t have keyboards on them, so it’s not quite as straightforward as hop in and play a melody. Then, of course, they have access to all of our computers. It’s funny; nowadays, everyone is using their own laptop, which was not true when I did this.  

What is your favorite aspect about SAW?

The listening sessions. I appreciate when I play a piece by Natasha Barrett, and the students who came here writing dance music are like "That sound design is amazing." The way that we engage with it on a moment-to-moment basis is not different than the weird experimental dance music that we listen to, like Aphex Twin, or the glitchy sort of fast stuff. People really draw the parallel between that and the music we are showing them. The main difference is that this music doesn’t use rhythmic stability. A lot of the sound design can be described with similar terms between the two genres.  

What is your favorite memory from being a participant at SAW?

The very first time I used a synthesizer. I remember this exact moment. Evan Adams, who was teaching then, had a synthesizer that he had fitting into a suitcase. I remember just plugging cables in.  

What are the synthesizers like?

We use modular synthesizers, which is a rack with individual modules that you screw in. The entire sound making is done through patches, so you’re connecting cables.  For instance, you take an oscillator, like a sine wave, and then you run it into a filter. Then that filter changes the timbre of it. After that, we run it into an amplifier to change the volume. Next, we might run it through a spring reverb, which then goes to the output.  

What kind of direction or instruction is being given in composing music?

That’s a tricky question. We try not to be too prescriptive with what we do. Electroacoustic music, the genre studied in the TIMARA Department, is a pretty specific field of experimental music. A lot of these kids are coming from dance backgrounds, or pop backgrounds. So in that regard, we’re trying not to dissuade them from writing the music that they’re already writing, but we’re definitely trying to encourage them to do something outside of their boundaries. I think a lot of the students, especially this year, have really done that. They’ve really taken a swing at writing some really experimental music, and I think they’ve been really successful with it.  

Who are some composers, performers or artists from this field that are particularly influential for those studying electroacoustic music?

I think we all take a different route with that.  Myself, for example, I play some idiomatic, acousmatic music. This means I only play living composers who have written music within the last 10 years—most of whom, actually all of whom, are from either the U.K. or the E.U., ha-ha. There a lot of other routes that can be taken. Eastman [Presser] shows off some performance art stuff, Francis [Wilson] is playing some of the classics, and Eli [Stine] is covering genres within it, such as instrument and electronics. Earlier in the week, Peter [Swendsen] was playing historical stuff—the classical electronic music.

What are some examples of classical electronic composers?

John Cage is the common example, but then there is also Varese, Xenakis, and, of course, Pierre Schaeffer. They are sort of the “pioneers.”  

Do many of your students have backgrounds in other types of music?

A lot of them play instruments, or sing, or participate in more traditional music. But with this, it is a lot of people’s first foray into experimental music. A lot of people are coming from dance backgrounds, so a lot of them have that technical proficiency. If they have the interest—which they clearly do—it’s a matter of applying that technical proficiency to do something very different than what they’ve done before.  

Considering today’s access to technology, what is different for kids attending the workshop today compared to when you attended SAW?

As I was saying, everyone has their own laptop now. What’s really funny is, when I did this, I didn’t have a laptop. So I would wake up right in the early morning, walk to the studio right when it opened, and I would immediately start working on the computers there. Nowadays, everybody is up late at night working on their pieces with headphones on. Once it was 24 hours before the concert, I told the students, "Don’t forget to stop sleeping and eating."

What sort of resources should new and returning workshop participants take advantage of?

The gear. That’s kind of the surface level. The thing to take advantage of is being in a place where you’re exposed to people who think about music in the way you do. I was talking to a student who was saying, "I can’t believe I’m here. I was talking to so-and-so, and he speaks about music in the way that I do." Literally, just the words we use and the way we describe things we like are so similar, and that’s really important. In a lot of ways, the social dynamic is equally important as the technology and the gear that we have.

When did you first become interested in electronic music?

I’m about to hit a decade. I was writing silly techno in Fruity Loops Studio. That is the actual name of the software. They have since rebranded to FL Studio. Some of the students come in knowing that as their primary software. I was writing pretty conventional dance music, a lot of drum and bass, until SAW. SAW kind of changed it for me. I got sick of putting a kick drum down first, and then a snare, and then hi-hats.  

Can you point to any breakthrough moment that helped you understand your path in electronic music making?

I remember looking on the TIMARA website at the music being written here, and I was like, "What is this?" Eli Stine, who I teach with now, had a piece on there. I just remember the way that he would activate all the frequencies in the spectrum, which was something that I was really obsessed with at that time. He was trying to fill the different gaps by using what a drumbeat would use to see how different parts would intermingle harmonically and spectrally. I just remember hearing the really low bass on it, and I was like "I know how to make that sound, but I’ve never heard it in this context." So I think that was probably the moment.

How was your experience in the TIMARA Department?

Fantastic. The faculty is amazing. Both Peter and Tom Lopez have been strong mentors of mine since the Sonic Arts Workshop. Now I’m going to grad school, and they wrote my letters of recommendation. So I’m infinitely grateful to those two, but also all the visiting professors that have come through.

Where are you going to grad school? What is the department called there?

I’m going to the University of Manchester in the U.K.  I’ll receive a Master of Music in Electroacoustic Composition. They pretty explicitly spell out what the degree is, rather than "Technology in Music and Related Arts," which I love the vagueness of. After this, I will probably go on to do a PhD.

Can you explain the specific field or interest that you are pursuing in electronic music?

I compose acousmatic music. Although I have a hard time calling it music sometimes. One phrase I really like is "cinema for the ear." For instance, I often think about my work as studio art in the sound domain, rather than music. I take materials and sonic objects, and begin morphing them. I am then figuring out how they line up with each other to make a bigger image.

Finally, is there any advice in particular you would like to give to young musicians hoping to pursue electronic music?

Be really open-minded. That’s the main one. If you totally hate a piece of music you hear, it means you should probably listen to it again. This way you can figure out what you don’t like about it. Instead of writing in a message board that you hate it, do the opposite in your own music. The second thing is, so much of this is how many hours of work you put in. With performance majors, it’s really easy to say, "I’m going to practice three hours a day, every day, for the next month."  Or "I’m going to do six hours," for the hardcore ones. For many composers, it can feel like "Let's wait for some inspiration and then write a piece about that." There’s a great Stephen King quote: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work.” Even if you’re not inspired, if you do some work you’ll get inspired.

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