‘Pierced by the music’: Ussachevsky Festival of Electroacoustic Music blurs convention

The Ussachevsky festival was held at Pomona College in Lyman Hall as a series of two concerts on Feb. 3 and 4. (Wendy Zhang • The Student Life)

Electroacoustic music seems to be an oxymoron at first glance. In the realm of acoustic music, rarely are electronics seen as more than as an additive, minorly enhancing performances after the fact. In the 31st Annual Ussachevsky Memorial Festival of Electroacoustic Music, acoustic music and electronic devices worked in tandem, enhancing each other in equal measure. 

Named for seminal electronic musician Vladimir Ussachevsky PO ’35, the Ussachevsky festival was held at Pomona College in Lyman Hall as a series of two concerts on Feb. 3third and 4fourth. The festival was coordinated by Tom Flaherty, Professor of Music at Pomona College. Most performers were faculty members at Pomona College, and all were prominent on the Los Angeles music scene.

As the name suggests, electroacoustic music is a combination of electronics and acoustics. Incorporating lavish electronic soundscapes as well as stripped-back isolated instrumental lines, the featured pieces showcased the role of electronic software in inventive ways. 

“The electronics make sounds that humans and acoustic instruments cannot make,” Flaherty said. “It’s as though the computer is a very flexible but unified ensemble and you can interact with it.” 

Performance methods included the usage of prerecorded acoustics as accompaniment for their live playing and the employment of electronic effects as performance aids.  

“The electronics make sounds that humans and acoustic instruments cannot make. It’s as though the computer is a very flexible but unified ensemble and you can interact with it.”

“Stillness is the Move,” performed and composed for solo flute by Rachel Beetz, a lecturer at Pomona College, used electronic devices as mediums for performance in themselves. The pitches of Beetz’s flute were electronically processed to parallel her bodily movement.

“If I move my arm down the pitch that comes out of the speaker goes lower,” Beetz said. “There’s one position in the center where the pitch stays constant and that’s where I have to play the melody. It’s about that center moment. The other things around it are an invitation to a beginning and an end.” 

Much of the performance quality was contingent on the stillness of her arms and, by extension, the stillness of her temperament; no small feat in a live setting.

Beetz started the piece physically slumped over, then as she played her flute she steadily moved into an upright position, which was then processed in the speaker as an ascending scale. 

“My piece is a play on the given nature of a performing body onstage,” Beetz said. “In classical music a lot of the [performing] bodies are supposed to be still, which is an artificial construct stemming from the culture of Western classical music. If you’re in an orchestra you train yourself to play without moving, versus if you’re in a rock band you dance and move around a lot more.”

JJ Hoffman PO ’26 enjoyed the piece “Nor Hope” by Wenbin Lyu, featuring vocals by soprano Melissa Givens, a professor at Pomona College. Givens sang a luminous, soaring melody overtop whispered repetition of the word “death” and a sporadic electronic soundscape, creating a sense of disquiet. 

“I’m not used to this type of music, so the repetition of ‘death’ was initially a little confusing, but I felt entranced,” Hoffman said. “It felt like she was screaming in your ears — every vibration reverberated throughout the room. I felt pierced by the music.”

Regarding the avant-garde motifs, such as dissonance and atonality interspersed among the festival program, Flaherty encouraged receptivity from attendees.

 “The hard thing about anything that’s new or unusual is that you’re depending on people’s openness,” Flaherty said. “We’re all open to a different degree sometimes on different days. Be open, and maybe you’ll like it and maybe you won’t. It’s a big world. You don’t have to like everything.”

“The Raven,” the closing piece by Avner Finberg, performed by violinist Sarah Thornblade and narrated by Joti Rockwell, reimagines its namesake classic poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Thornblade stepped on a foot pedal to loop and layered musical phrases instantaneously, gradually crafting an eerie sonic landscape which echoed the psychological horror of the iconic text.

The constant interplay between electronic and acoustic elements prompted a newfound appreciation for the performers’ technical and stylistic prowess from attendees, inspiring them to  metacognitively re-imagine the norms of musical performance and composition.

Disclaimer: JJ Hoffman is a data assistant and crossword maker at TSL.

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