Whether it’s pushing sonic limits or questioning the notion of silence, the field of experimental music knows no bounds. The Experimental Music Group, currently a core of two undergraduate music majors and six graduate students, hopes to foster a greater appreciation of this type of music at Wesleyan, mainly by bringing experimental composers and performers to campus.
“The main purpose of the group has always been to increase awareness and the presence of experimental music on campus, given that Wesleyan has such a rich history of it,” said Ben Zucker ’15.
Zucker is one of the undergraduate leaders of the group, along with Matthew Chilton ’16. The graduate students in the group are Jason Brogan, Daniel Fishkin, Nathan Friedman, Jasmine Lovell-Smith, Dina Maccabee, and Sean Sonderegger.
The group’s biggest event this semester is the upcoming Experimental Music Festival, which will feature concerts at Russell House every night starting at 9 p.m. from this Saturday through Monday, Nov. 25. The festival will showcase a wide range of musical ideas, bringing together the works of world-renowned composers, prominent local performers, and the students themselves. Although the performers represent a wide variety of backgrounds and styles, the acts will all converge on a single idea: the musical duo.
“There’s so much embedded within the duo in terms of possibilities and different strategies for making music,” Chilton said. “We thought that by crystallizing the duo as the only constant of the music festival, that it would prove to show a lot of different perspectives on the way you can make music in this form. Even within the umbrella category of experimental music, there are so many different variables.”
Zucker added that they didn’t originally plan for this to be the theme; it just ended up working out that way. The group also wasn’t initially planning to cluster these performances into a single festival, but all of the artists it wanted to book happened to be available on the same weekend.
“It’s very fortunate, the way that artists’ ideal dates lined up,” Zucker said. “It was like, ‘Hey, we can do this on a weekend and make it look like a big deal!’ Which it is.”
Saturday night’s concert will open with a performance by local vocalist and performance artist Stephanie Trotter, who will be accompanied by Zucker on the piano. They will be playing selections from a song cycle composed by Friedman.
“The pieces are not jazz, but they are, I feel, jazz-influenced,” Friedman said.
Friedman comes from a classical conservatory background but is now pursuing an MA at the University in composition and experimental music.
Zucker said that the performance will represent a merging of styles and ideas.
“We are singing songs in a kind of high modernist style, [Friedman’s] composition style, possibly with improvisation to blur the experience,” he said.
Following this performance, Friedman himself will take the stage.
“I’m playing a duet with Sean Sonderegger, who mostly has a jazz background, and our duo is an attempt to sort of reconcile our backgrounds—so more classical and jazz, together,” he said.
Sonderegger and Friedman will both be playing clarinets for this performance.
“[This set will feature] a repertoire of composed and improvised music, originals and arrangements, that emphasize complex interplay and powerful difference tones,” the event website reads. “These musicians prove that sometimes 1+1=3.”
The headlining performers on Saturday night will be Cat Toren, a Brooklyn-based jazz pianist, joined by Lovell-Smith on the soprano saxophone. The two musicians have worked together before, and this performance will feature original compositions by both of them, including a graphic score that Lovell-Smith recently created in a printmaking class.
“Cat is Canadian, and Jasmine’s from New Zealand, so there’s an interesting globe-trotting aspect and a distinctly personal style to what they’re doing,” Zucker said.
Sunday night will feature a performance by cellist Kevin McFarland and violinist Christopher Otto from the Jack Quartet, an accomplished young string quartet based in New York City.
“They’re coming from definitely a classical tradition, but their music is totally unlike what you’d expect from a classical tradition,” Friedman said. “It’s based around almost a deconstruction of the instrument, so it’s what they call decoupling, where the different hands playing the instrument are effectively independent.”
Brogan remarked that this decoupling fits in well with the festival’s overall theme of dualities.
“It’s not just a duo in the sense of two people; it’s very much a duo in the sense of two hands, a duo in the sense of finger and string, a duo in the sense of bow and string, string and wood,” he said.
Friedman went on to explain that decoupling produces very distinct and unconventional sounds.
“You have conventional string playing, where you finger a note [with one hand] and you bow it [with the other], and generally they move together when you’re changing notes,” he said. “But in this case, they’ll have different rhythms, different textures for the bowing hand and for the fingering hand. But there’s also more variation in timbre. And so yes, it’s classical, but it also won’t sound like anything anyone will expect. And it will be very interesting; people will be wondering how they’re producing these sounds, and they’ll hopefully be able to see exactly what’s going on.”
The festival’s location at Russell House, an intimate location, will allow guests to do just that.
“Russell House is an underrated space,” Zucker said. “The piano in there is top-notch; it’s got a nice sound to it. And it’s out of the way, but that kind of makes it easier to use in some cases. We briefly considered using other spaces, but given that we’ve had previous concerts in Russell House before, it’s part of the character.”
The festival will conclude on Monday night with a set by two renowned musicians: Peter Evans on trumpet and Sam Pluta on laptop electronics.
“Both of them are pretty acclaimed for their work internationally in various other groups, Evans as a free-jazz and improvisatory trumpeter, and Sam as a sound artist and as a composer,” Zucker said. “In their duo, a lot of it is taking Evans’ trumpet sound and breaking it apart and messing with it.”
Chilton added that this set will be very much in the spirit of the festival as a whole.
“There will be tons of really interesting live processing, and moments where you can’t tell where sounds are coming from, and it’s all just very fast, extremely engaging and exciting stop-and-start intensities, and all these weird trumpet sounds that you thought couldn’t come out of a trumpet before,” he said. “So it’s really interesting to listen to, just kind of music you want to sit in a chair in a nice, cozy room like Russell House and just enjoy.”
According to members of the group, visitors to Russell House will enjoy not just the individual performances, but also the sheer variety of music represented.
“Its very much a festival in the sense that it’s a collection of different threads within contemporary experimental music,” Brogan said.
“On Saturday night and Monday night, there’s very much this possibility of showing up, hearing one set, and then hearing a set that’s completely different from what you heard before. Or on Sunday night, you might here one piece, and then the next piece that’s on the program will be completely different in some way.”
A festival like this on campus is hardly coming out of nowhere: the University has a rich tradition of experimental music composition and performance. Alvin Lucier, a key figure in the field who is perhaps best known for his narrative piece “I Am Sitting in a Room,” recently retired after decades of teaching at the University. Pivotal avant-garde composer John Cage also had longstanding ties to campus. Professor of Music Anthony Braxton, an acclaimed avant-garde composer known for his work in a variety of genres, has also been teaching here for many years, though he will be retiring at the end of the year.
Although many of the people who brought the University to the forefront of the experimental music scene are no longer on campus, the tradition lives on in the form of the popular course “Introducion to Experimental Music” (MUSC 109) and in the endeavors of various faculty members in the Music Department. The Experimental Music Group hopes to seize this enthusiasm for experimental music on campus and extend it beyond the music curriculum.
“There’s such an emphasis on experimental music in the curriculum, and pretty much everybody who’s interested in music seems to take Music 109, ‘Intro to Experimental Music,’” Chilton said. “But then, where do they go from there? We’re trying to make it so that they have somewhere to go from there.”
Many graduate students in the Music Department see the department’s extensive background in experimental music as an invaluable resource.
“The definition of experimental music is very broad here, I think,” Friedman said. “The freedom we have here to explore what we want—aesthetically, but also in terms of resources—is definitely great.”
He added that this multiplicity is part of what defines experimental music in general.
“[Music critic] Alex Ross, in a review, said that in a sense, experimental music is kind of like the north pole,” Friedman said. “Different genres are different continents, but they all converge at the pole—which might be cold and distant, but it’s an interesting point of convergence between different things. And I think this festival is part of that.”
Lovell-Smith noted that many people gravitate away from traditional courses toward experimental music.
“I feel like there are a lot of people who are less interested in engaging with traditional theory or some of the more classically oriented courses, but who do take the Intro to Experimental Music class, and they really love being exposed to a wide variety of ways of making music that aren’t necessarily using the traditional Western framework of, you know, music on a stage, and reading and learning a lot of rules,” she said.
Members of the group agree that this lack of rules in experimental music is what makes it so accessible, even if it doesn’t seem so at first.
“Experimental music doesn’t always have to be this hyper-technical, academic thing,” Chilton said. “It also should be accessible to many people, because everybody has the means to create awesome and interesting sounds that they might not look for.”
As an example, he picked up a water bottle and hit the opening at the top with his hand, creating a distinctly hollow sound.
“All these objects we’re holding and playing with in our everyday lives have the opportunity to be integrated into musical contexts, just by sort of listening to them as such,” he said. “That’s a powerful tool for engaging people and getting people together to make music, from sources that they see every day.”
In addition to engaging people with the sounds that surround them, members of the Experimental Music Group hope to expand the group’s reach in other ways. More concerts are on the horizon, but group members have other ideas, too.
“I don’t feel that experimental music is entirely about music,” Brogan said. “It’s about so much more than music. I think that any action that’s made within the world of experimental music is political in some way or another. Within experimental music practices, there’s always something at stake. There’s always some kind of radical core concept that might be explored or presented in a work, some some kind of claim.”
He added that discussions about these claims are vital to looking further in experimental music.
“Sure, there will be concerts as well, and that’s exciting,” Brogan said. “But I’m more concerned with using the model of a workshop or an open forum to kind of explode experimental music in a way.”