In eerie excellence, Wesleyan graduate students Jordan Dykstra, Matt Wellins, Aurora Nealand, and Dave Scanlon performed for free this past Tuesday night, Oct. 4, in the World Music Hall. The concert was broken into three pieces, each one illustrating a uniquely beautiful, experimental music style.
The evening opened with “Pitch Gradient with Noise in A# & Four Found Clouds,” a pairing of two pieces composed by Dykstra. The performers of “Pitch Gradient with Noise in A#” formed a semicircle open to the audience in which sat a violinist, cellist, EBow guitarist, bassoonist, pitched percussionists, sine-toneists, and noise percussionists. In the center of this semicircle sat the sole performer of Four Found Clouds, Marilu Donovan, playing her amplified pedal harp with EBow.
“Pitched Gradient with Noise in A#” created a melancholy and mystic backdrop, which the harp cut into with both astringent high notes and church bell-like lower tones. The curious percussion instruments of jangling chains and grinding sticks struck me as oddly satisfying and in perfect harmony with the work. The whole performance felt as if it belonged in an Edgar Allen Poe story.
Wellins followed with an improvised performance named “10/4” (a now outdated title). The piece began with him sitting alone centerstage, surrounded by a mass of cords and tin boxes between two amplifiers. Then came a screaming symphony of electrical appliance sound, evoking intense emotion and passion that seemed to reflect on feelings of frustration.
Most of the equipment used by Wellins did not produce sound on its own, but required consistent manipulation of deliberate feedback networks. Wellins generally avoided the use of any sort of designated oscillators. When asked about the significance of his abstention from oscillators (and what the hell a designated oscillator is), Wellins discussed how using such devices inhibited improvising.
“A good amount of electronic music uses periodically recurring geometrical waveforms—things like sine, triangle, and sawtooth waveforms,” he wrote in an email to The Argus. “I like those sounds, but they are very stable—they play at a particular frequency and they keep playing until you turn them off. Those are the types of oscillators that I try to avoid using.”
Wellins further explained how this technique affected his work.
“Having said that, all oscillators use some form of feedback and feedback often oscillates,” he said. “It’s just that in the above examples, feedback is often regulated and controlled to serve a particular repetitive function. With a lot of commercial software and equipment, you can’t access this feedback directly, but you could do something like take a mixer and send the output back into the input. As you start to experiment, you might find that putting different parts and processes into that loop might make the feedback oscillate in irregular ways. For me, a performance usually involves very slight adjustments to different elements arranged in this pathway. The instruments are built in such a way that I’m never quite sure if it will ‘work.’”
Wellins explained what had inspired such unique and eccentric sounds.
“I should say that the influence of Michael Johnsen and David Tudor are complex,” he said. “I have an enormous respect for David Tudor, and his work is a big part of why I’m here at Wesleyan; as you might know, the music department has the majority of his instruments. But I’ve known Michael Johnsen for many years, seeing him perform is a big reason why I chose to start building electronics; he helped me get started and continues to help.”
Next up were Scanlon’s guitar solos, which consisted of a combination of three pieces: “Quilt Music No. 5,” “Characters from a play,” and “Sits down at the other side of the table, Part II.”
Scanlon’s hands scurried in dual fury as he played on his distinct guitar setup, which had an extra pick-up over the first fret. His technique, combined with the unique guitar setup, gave his rapid guitar playing a gnarled electronic sound as it came through the amplifier. His exciting performance closed out a night of great music.
Many of the show’s attendees were students of experimental music at Wesleyan.
“I’ve been taking Introduction to Experimental Music as a class this semester, so being able to apply what we’ve learned to the pieces performed tonight was a great opportunity,” Naomi Glascock ’20 said. “So much of this music is made up of both visual and aural cues that seeing it performed live is a vastly different experience than listening to a recording or even watching a filmed performance. Being able to feel the resonance of the room and see how each musician is working with the rest can give a totally different perspective.”
This visual aspect was especially noticeable in Wellins’ performance, in which his constant fidgeting gave added depth to the music.
“Some of the pieces took on a sort of entrancing and meditative quality that made it easy to let your mind wander along with the different sounds,” Glascock said. “Over the course of taking this class, I’ve really learned that sound is often at its most beautiful when it’s allowed to exist as it is without trying to categorize it in the larger context of a work. Matt Wellins’ piece really embodied that with how many different types of noise coexisted in the same space for the duration of it.”
“Getting to Know You” revealed to a new form of musical expression that glorifies the basic elements of sound. Wellins sums up this revelation nicely.
“As I write you this email, I’m surrounded by seltzer bottles, speakers, paper towels, a mechanical pencil, a coffee mug, and a hardshell glasses case,” Wellins wrote. “We are engulfed in objects, and paying attention to them often has an equivalent impact on my work as other art might. Who doesn’t love the sound of an eyeglasses case closing?”