Electric slide

UNR’s electronic music composition class

Jean-Paul Perrotte, helming the board in the recording studio at UNR.

Jean-Paul Perrotte, helming the board in the recording studio at UNR.

Photo By Brad Bynum

The phrase “electronic music” might immediately conjure up unhappy memories of repetitive oomph-cha-oomph-cha dance music. But electronic music has a rich and varied history that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. There’s the German tradition of elektonische musik, music composed of synthesized sounds, and the competing French tradition of musique concrete, compositions that use recordings of found sounds.

“We use ideas from both of those camps,” says Jean-Paul Perrotte, an adjunct faculty member of the music department at the University of Nevada, Reno. Perrotte teaches the electronic music composition course at UNR. The course examines the history and techniques of electronic composers, like the German innovator Karlheinz Stockhausen and the American iconoclast John Cage, and the development of electronic music technology and instruments—like the Theremin, the trademark sound of hundreds of science fiction movies. But Perrotte also teaches students studio techniques: how to use modern software applications, like the music editing program Pro Tools, and how to use the recording studio not strictly as a recording studio, but as a compositional tool.

The class, currently in its second semester, has attracted a range of students: music students, art students, computer science students and psychology students. The students of last semester’s class will present a free concert of their electronic compositions at UNR’s Nightingale Hall at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 25.

“The compositions run the gamut,” says Perrotte. “[The students] really embraced the idea of not being comfortable. … They didn’t adhere to a traditional tonal sensibility.”

For the class, each student was required to produce a one-minute musique concrete composition, as well as a four or five-minute piece that incorporates synthesized sounds. The results range from the Dark Side of the Moon-like modulations of Bryan Daines’ “Interlude of Madness” to Jessica De Vuono’s short, abstract guitar exploration “Electroacoustic,” a piece that nicely demonstrates the nontraditional uses of traditional instruments in Musique Concrete.

Daines composed much of his piece using an old Yamaha organ he found on the street—found sounds from a found object.

Some of the pieces have recognizable rhythmic or compositional structures, and others have the dense atmosphere of an electronic movie score. Some are pure sonic exploration—arrhythmic, atonal pops and beeps and rapid-fire shifts in tonality, texture and volume.

Wes Pitman’s “Enemachine” uses found sounds to evoke industrial rhythms—both the industrial rhythms of factory production and the rhythms of the misbegotten music genre called industrial music. Eric Jennings’ “Kaizen” is a very cinematic piece with dramatic peaks and valleys.

Many of the pieces conjure up images in the head of the listener—the found sounds often remind the listener of their source (trains or typewriters, say), and the synthesized music is often reminiscent of film scores—so it might not be surprising to learn that, for the concert, some of the pieces will be accompanied by multimedia projections produced by digital media students from UNR’s art department.

“We’re creating sound environments,” says Daines. “It’s time we caught up with the rest of the world.”