As a classical musician, I’ve learned to respect the sanctity of ceremony in music performance. One grows accustomed to the frenetic chaos of performers warming up, the whispered breaths of tuning notes, the pomp and circumstance of symphonic applause. Yet somehow, during the annual performance called Earfest on Thursday March 8, Stony Brook University’s Computer Music Studio completely upended these expectations. And I find my experience all the better for it.
Empty of performers, the Staller Recital Hall stage was instead focused on three imposing figures: two speakers and a projector screen. “I think it is a challenge for this type of music because we like the human element,” explained Professor Daniel Weymouth, Earfest curator and co-director of the university’s Computer Music Studio. “It’s one of the reasons why I present these the way I do, with talking in between.”
Indeed, Professor Weymouth’s speeches helped lock in the missing human element. After introducing each piece and composer, he would dive into short descriptions of the music or musician—tidbits that helped me connect to the music on a more personal level. Unlike my previous experiences (snubbed by conductors at symphony concerts or nervously unacknowledged at chamber recitals), Weymouth broke the fourth wall. And instead of burying myself into the pages of program notes, I found myself instead part of a small, albeit temporary, community of music-lovers.
The beauty of that shared experience is what made this performance special. Much of electronic music is heard alone, on CDs, while sandwiched between headphones. Indeed, without live performers necessary, all of electronic music could, in theory, be enjoyed alone. But Professor Weymouth, who compared the visual experience of going to a movie with the aural experience of an electronic music performance, believes in the value of these stagings.
“We spend an awful lot of our time isolated, even when we’re so-called connecting with other people. I think there’s something to be said about getting a bunch of people together in a space sharing a common experience.”
Unlike music composed for acoustic instruments, electronic music is unhindered by physical limitations. “When you start dealing with electronics, it could potentially do anything,” said Weymouth. “Some of my colleagues say it’s more similar to sculpture, as opposed to [instrumental music], which may be more like painting.”
The colorful array of pieces displayed at Earfest reflected this sense of limitlessness. One piece, “so many days to be here” by Kristi McGarity, was constructed entirely out of an NPR interview of homeless children. In it, chords were abstracted and served as the backdrop for the plaintive voices of children. “Papyrus” by Diana Simpson took samples from the folding and ripping of paper and manipulated them into a chorus of interesting sounds and textures. Earfest also premiered “Trittico Mediterraneo” by Konstantinos Karanthanis, who used the noise of children playing in a village square and crickets to encapsulate the feeling of summer in Greece.
It may be easy to feel intimidated by this kind music at first. But Professor Weymouth insists that “if people forget about trying to understand and just experience it, the music can come through.” And as I let myself go in a few moments during the concert, the music making my skin feel more like skin, I’d have to agree wholeheartedly with him.
If you’re interested in more productions like Earfest, come listen to electronic music at the Sonic Springs performance on April 20 in the Staller Recital Hall.