Now You Hear Him: Devin Frenze '15 Explores the Limits of Human Ears

October 20, 2014

Michael Stenovec

portrait of Devin Frenze
Photo credit: Zachary Christy

Though he grew up playing piano and cello and singing in choirs, Devin Frenze traces his passion for composition to his first exposure to what he affectionately calls “weird music.”

“Atonal and contemporary music offered me something new—something I hadn't already been saturated with,” says Frenze, a fifth-year student at Oberlin who hails from Philadelphia. “I started learning about it shortly after I started learning music theory, and it was exciting to see music that defied so many of the conventions of traditional music. It felt revolutionary to me—not just in that it revolutionized my life, but it seemed like I had discovered some hidden musical potential that instantly bestowed on me the responsibility of exposing it to more people and furthering that kind of music.”

A visit to Oberlin during Frenze’s junior year in high school solidified his decision to be a composer. It was there that he met Professor of Composition Lewis Nielson, and where his doubts about how best to approach a career in music evaporated.

“Without knowing me, Lewis was hugely encouraging,” says Frenze. “He gave me a list of recordings to listen to so I could get my ears on some atonal and more contemporary music, and he gave me scores of some of the pieces to study as I listened to them.”

In addition to composition, Frenze is pursuing a degree in computer science in Oberlin’s College of Arts and Sciences. It’s a subject he’s drawn to because of its creative applications both in projection art and composition.

“I soon found analogues between the process of working on computer programs and the process of creating music,” he says. “Changing the argument to a function can be like transposing or modulating musical material; by seeing musical aspects as measurable parameters—like tempo, pitch, and timbre—one easily can draw similarities between coding and composition. Creating a meaning and purpose from these modular elements is the challenge and reward of the process.”

Already, Frenze is putting his expertise to work as a partner in Real Boy Digital, a company formed with fellow Oberlin students that crafts cohesive audio-visual environments to accompany traditional concerts. Requests for Real Boy's services have come in from across the country; Frenze and friends spent a recent weekend during fall semester performing in Brooklyn, New York.

“The programs we write for projections render the video in real time,” he says, “and a lot of our work is exploring the potential for computers and various user interfaces to be used as performative visual instruments.”

Likewise, Frenze’s junior recital also served as a synthesis of his two passions. A piece called Zodiac, for classical guitar and electronics, was written during a winter-term composition residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, Canada. While a fellow student performed on guitar, Frenze provided wireless electronic accompaniment from his seat in the audience, using an iPad connected to a computer onstage.

Frenze’s second recital piece, Other, consisted first of 19 minutes of acoustic material that became increasingly timbral and continuous, and incrementally less melodic. The final three minutes were an abrupt 15,423hz sine tone.

“This was my first exploration into the limitations of auditory perception, and it got a really mixed reception,” Frenze says. “For some people, this tone was painful. For others it was fixating, and for older people, it was three minutes of silence, because it is out of the range of their hearing.”

For his senior recital, Frenze hopes to expand on this theme. “It’ll be focused on sounds and patterns that lie on the boundary of perceptual capacity in terms of frequency, rate of change, patterns that are ambiguous, and timbres that are synthetic and are the result of hundreds of discrete sounds occurring simultaneously.

“I'm interested in creating music that seems more related to the tools than to the people, as if it were for computers. It all feels imminent and deliberate and supremely organized, because machines are logical and efficient, and somewhat intimidating because they don't reduce to something that is familiar and easy to simplify.

“At some point in the music,” Frenze says, “a certain level of submission is necessary to keep up with the extra-human pace of the sounds and not be left behind.”

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