A Sonic Pyramid: Tufts’ Electronic Music Ensemble

Most schools’ electronic music ensembles (if they have one) exist only on laptops. Paul Lehrman, the conductor of Tufts University’s electronic music ensemble, finds this approach boring. Rather than only using computers to produce music, his group connects ten electronic instruments to four computers. Software on the computers create the sound, which is run through a four-channel sound system. This complex arrangement takes about three hours to set up, and includes instruments like drum pads, keyboards, electronic woodwind instruments, and the sonic pyramid – a device that can be used by up to three musicians, designed by a former student of Lehrman’s. It is a large red pyramid with multicolored buttons and circular, touch-sensitive ribbons.

A benefit to using all electronic instruments is that they can play any kind of music. The sounds of each device can be altered, either by the instrument itself or the computer to which it is attached. This allows the ensemble’s sound to be drastically changed depending on the song. The ensemble only meets in the fall and has their concert on December 12th, where they perform jazz, rock, and classical compositions, in addition to three original pieces written by students.

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Photo by Noah Adler

Paul Lehrman’s older brother introduced him to electronic music. He started making his own electronic music using tape as a junior in high school. Lehrman made the first all-MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) folk album in 1986, called The Celtic Macintosh. Another one of Paul’s impressive achievements is the Ballet Mécanique project. It was written in the 1920’s for sixteen player pianos, which at the time couldn’t exist due to technological limitations. Lehrman was hired to program the Ballet, and a CD and documentary film came of his feat. He has also performed a few gigs with Jamie Lidell, a great singer who uses electronics in clever ways, in England. Lehrman mentioned he likes the element of surprise and improvisation in Lidell’s live shows. Lidell layers and digitally alters vocals, while providing live percussion and melody.

Lehrman first theorized the Tufts electronic music ensemble in 2007, when the music building first opened. There were some large hurdles to overcome in order to incorporate it into the curriculum, namely that this type of ensemble had never been done before at Tufts, but the group was finally realized in 2012. What Lehrman looks for in the ensemble’s musicians is that they are comfortable in both musical and technological realms. He says the best part of his job is showing students how to combine these passions. In a regular ensemble, everyone knows their role and how to play that role, but in an electronic ensemble there is constant reinvention. Their challenge every year is to figure out what kind of music they want to play, and how they can accomplish it in a particular style. The students have a tremendous amount of say in what they play. One member of the ensemble suggested playing a song by Talking Heads, so they will be performing that at their concert. There is an organic feel to the ensemble, which juxtaposes the synthetic noise that composes their music. Lehrman thinks of the ensemble as “technology in service of art”, where the technology gives rise to artistic opportunity.

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Photo courtesy of Paul Lehrman

Lehrman’s office is appropriately tucked away in Granoff Music Center. His office is a fascinating space, filled with different keyboards, strewn cables and wires, various digital audio devices, and high-tech instruments whose sounds could not be guessed based on their appearance. Amongst these gadgets are a Casio MIDI saxophone, a QuNeo programmable pad used to trigger loops, Yamaha wind controllers with breath and bite sensors, the MalletKAT MIDI xylophone, and a Roland HandSonic with “ribbons”, fourteen pressure sensitive buttons, and a distance sensor. When asked about an obscure-looking white instrument called a theremin, Lehrman sprang into action, playing it skillfully using its dual proximity sensors to change the volume and pitch. What makes these instruments as well as the ensemble itself so versatile and interesting is that their physical appearance doesn’t connect to their sound. An instrument that looks like a clarinet could sound like a bass guitar, drum pads can have samples loaded onto them. The sonic pyramid can make some wild sounds with up to three people operating it. Some other remarkable devices that have been used are Wiimotes and iPads, which show how creative the ensemble can be with their tools at hand.

When asked about the current state of most popular electronic music, Lehrman responded by saying that there isn’t much current electronic music he’s inspired by. He mentioned “I like music I can listen to more than once, not just that makes you feel good while you’re on the dance floor”. He thinks it’s easy to make not particularly good music, and that people get lazy and let their tools dictate what their music is. This doesn’t change the equation that one needs to know what they’re doing in order to make good music. He knows people that were doing the same thing, albeit on a less complicated level, 50 years ago, which explains why he’s not impressed with most current electronic music. Despite all that he said, he does like Radiohead, David Torn and Martin Swan. “David Torn is a guitarist who does solo shows with tons of electronics, and he can be brilliant. There’s a Scottish fiddle player named Martin Swan who had a project for many years called Mouth Music that combined electronics with traditional folk music, that I thought was incredibly successful”. Lehrman admires these musicians because the techniques they use are secondary to the musicianship that shines through. On earlier electronic music, “You can go back to the early days of synthesizers, where you had dozens of mediocre musicians putting out bad bleepy-bloopy records, but the really great musicians, like Wendy Carlos and Dick Hyman, were using the same technology to make music that was great then, and still holds up”.

Attending an electronic music ensemble rehearsal is an awesome and difficult experience, the latter because Lehrman refuses to explicitly tell where the group practices. After poring over a cryptic email with vague directions and some blurry Google Maps images, one might manage to stumble across “the cave”, as the ensemble refers to their practice space. The cave is a long and skinny room hidden in a nondescript building on Boston Ave, reminiscent of a mashup between a traditional band’s practice space and the high-tech madness that is Lehrman’s Granoff office. The cramped space includes iPads, iMacs, various electrical audio boxes on shelves, guitars that cost less than their advanced pickups, a drum kit that looked like a more professional version of the Guitar Hero drums, an electrical outlet behind each musician, and many of the instruments found in Lehrman’s office. When asked how an electronic music ensemble rehearsal differs from a regular band’s rehearsal, the musicians said that there is much more setup time. Sometimes a strange noise occurs that takes the group quite a while to derive its source. One musician mentioned that it’s more collaborative than his past rehearsal experiences, as the musicians provide half the songs they will be performing come December.

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Photo by Noah Adler

What makes the ensemble’s practices so impressive is the variety of sounds the group can produce. Their rehearsals could sound like a non-electronic band’s rehearsal or something straight out of a video game. One moment they’ll be doing an impromptu cover of Rush’s Tom Sawyer, and the next the ensemble will launch into Mean Bean Machine, a piece to be performed at their December concert. Mean Bean Machine takes its name from a Sonic the Hedgehog game and is a concerto for two violinists and an electronic ensemble, composed by a member of the Tufts class of 2015.

The ensemble’s musicians are equally as versatile as the group’s sound. While Lehrman’s conducting closely resembles that of a regular ensemble’s conductor, the way that the musicians switch instruments is entirely unique. While running through a challenging section of Mean Bean Machine, one of the players said he was having trouble reading the chart, since he didn’t have much experience with bass clef. Lehrman responded he could re-score the part, and just program the instrument to sound an octave lower, if that would help. Because every instrument in the group can make just about any sound you can think of, it’s not the sounds themselves that make the ensemble so impressive—it’s the skill and versatility of the musicians.

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