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Brandeis archives shows off electronic music collection from 1960s

It is surely an understatement to say that music has changed a lot in the last 50 years, especially since the advent of electronic music in the 1960s, but inevitably the statement still rings true. It is hard to consider just how much the process of making electronic music has changed, and how the process of consuming that medium has changed—but that becomes slightly easier to contemplate when confronted with the archives. Luckily enough, in an event titled “Close Looking: Electronic Music Collection” which happened on Wednesday, March 9 at 3:30 p.m. in Rapaporte Treasure Hall, students and faculty alike were given a glance into the lush history of electronic music at Brandeis.

Sponsored by the Rose Art Museum, the Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Department, the event was intended to spread awareness about the tapes in Brandeis’ collection, many of which had slowly degraded over time due to less than ideal conditions. Led by Eric Chasalow, the Irving Fine Professor of Music and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the presentation took the form of a PowerPoint and question and answer section. A composer even up to the present, Chaslow continues to celebrate the wondrous complexity that is electronic music, especially with his more recent composition “Quintonna,” which has a more video game like quality. This archival collection is particularly relevant to Brandeis since the first performance with electronic music happened at the Festival of the Arts on campus in 1952, which took place shortly after the school’s 1948 founding.

Brandeis University archives has a selection of reel-to-reel tapes with electronic music on them, some of which were produced at Brandeis in the 60s and others which were produced in studios from all around the world. Some of these tapes are duplicates, as one individual would make copies of his or her work and send it to a plethora of institutions, but others are one-of-a-kind tapes that cannot be found anywhere else. Before the Internet and mass forms of communication were present, you had to receive or send your own work to other composers in order to keep track of what was happening in the world of electronic music. This literal transference of material explains why so many of the tapes in the archives were not composed by Brandeis-affiliated persons.

The Brandeis Electronic Music Studio, first founded by Gus Ciamaga in 1961, is now known as Brandeis Electro-Acoustic Music Studio (BEAMS). At that time, composing electronic music was a very difficult and meticulous process that required cutting up reels and splicing them together. Depending on the amount of musical complexity the composer intended, this could mean cutting up a reel into microscopic subsections. Amazing enough, this required cutting in a specific fashion to avoid a “pop” or “click” sound in the recording, and the composer also had to be extra careful so as not to rub the reel too hard—the results could be disastrous. Nowadays anyone with a laptop can make electronic music, wherever; these are luxuries unimagined to the people of the time.

Called musique concrete, in the early days of electronic music, pitch and rhythm were inextricably tied. The most pitches that Chaslow remembers manipulating at once were 10, which according to him required a lot of commitment and a decent amount of hard work. Brandeis’ archival collection includes pieces by various composers, including but not limited to Harold Shapero, Luciano Berio, Ernst Krenek and Lyle Davidson. Depending on the composer’s musical tastes, some incorporate real world sounds with funky electronic overtones, though others rely completely on foreign, electronically derived sounds that are hard to describe. According to Chaslow, the intermingling of these electronic sounds generates “textures.”

In order to preserve the tapes, which naturally degrade over time, all of the tapes were transferred to a digital format mainly because of a Grammy Foundation grant. Now they can be consumed by anyone who ventures as far as their Internet site.

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