Experimental sound exhibit debut at Sutter Theater

Jun. 14—On Saturday, Yuba Sutter Arts & Culture (YSAC) hosted “Presence,” a sound environment experience by local composer Kevin Swenson.

“Presence” could best be described as experimental and employed the use of computer generated algorithms to produce sounds based on live data such as date, time, weather, and location. There was also a level of improvisation from Swenson, and audience participation added to the experience.

The free event lasted from 5 to 9 pm on Saturday at Sutter Theater Center for the Arts along Plumas Street in Yuba City. Guests were welcome to come and go as they pleased, and the dimly lit theater offered a cool respite from the blazing 102-degree weather.

Inside, the hypnotic music was accompanied by a transient light show produced by lighting designer Chris Bolton to enhance the experience. David Read, YSAC’s executive director, said the installation seemed to have both meditational and spiritual undertones, other guests described it as “galactic,” “foreign,” and “trippy.”

Swenson defined his work as “drone-based” meaning it comes from a genre that emphasizes the use of sustained sounds. Drone music can be found in various cultures throughout the world such as Scottish bagpipe traditions, the Australian didgeridoo, or the tanpura of traditional orient music styles.

A Yuba City native, Swenson built his musical foundation at both Yuba City High School and Yuba College, as well as in the private trumpet studio of Michael Meeks. He has a master of music degree in composition from Syracuse University and a bachelor of music degree in composition from University of the Pacific in which he graduated summa cum laude. In the Fall, Swenson will begin studies toward a Ph.D. in music composition at the University of Iowa.

The unique nature of his most recent exhibit prompted several questions which are best answered by the composer himself. Below is a short question-and-answer session with this eccentric artist and aspiring doctor.

Q: What inspired this project?

A: I did a similar piece in 2019 called “Generative Meditation” that consisted of a drone in an imperceptible state of flux based on the same algorithm used in “Presence.” That piece was mainly inspired by two composers, La Monte Young and Karlheinz Stockhausen. I traveled to New York City in March of 2019 with the University of the Pacific Symphonic Wind Ensemble. While there I visited Young’s “Dream House” sound installation at 275 Church Street. I am a longtime admirer of Young, and I was in awe with the psychoacoustic effects of his drone-based music, as well as the fascinating light displays prepared by his partner Marian Zazeela. Around the same time, I had studied Stockhausen’s “Stimmung.” During some moments of that piece, the singers chant the names of days of the week. That part got stuck in my head and gave me the idea to write a piece that would change every day, or even moment to moment. As I have improved my computer music skills in the last few years, I decided to take the basic idea of ​​”Generative Meditation” and develop it in a more complex and flexible environment.

Q: How did the algorithms, and or data processors, choose the sounds to play?

A: The piece is controlled through a mix of the algorithms and actual human choice. In terms of the combination of sounds, the vocal improvisations, the duration of sections of music and so on, I was controlling everything. The algorithm controlled things like the fundamental frequency based on the time and date, the tempo based on the temperature outside, and choice of musical scale based on whether it was day or night. Also, the names of the days of the week are used numerologically to produce unique sets of pitches for each individual day. Thus, the melodic and harmonic structures change slightly from Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday, etc. I am extremely interested in semi-improvisatory works — piece’s that rely on performer improvisation but that also have some elements of predictability. Allowing the computer to take over much of the decision making is one way of achieving such a scenario. For example, several months ago the sun set earlier, and the nighttime scale thus began around six or seven in the evening. Last night I had to wait until 8:40 pm

Q: What inspired the different noises and readings you did?

A: This was a mix of planning and improvisation. Some moments are things I worked out in the past. For example, the reading of the “Feeding of the Four Thousand” from the book of Mark in the Bible is something I knew I wanted to do. This is because the story makes specific reference to groups of seven several times. The number seven is integral to the piece as the tuning is based in seven-limit just intonation, the seven sets of pitches based on the names of days of the week, the seven basic sound sources, etc. The readings regarding Pythagoras are a through-line in my work in earlier pieces like “Ritual no. 1” and “Tetraktys in Neon.” He is an important figure in music, particularly regarding tuning and temperament, an area that I am very invested in compositionally. Thus, I pay homage to Pythagoras regularly. At the same time, I was trying new things on the spot and even changed the pitch a bit in real time to increase its flexibility. I like to take risks and occasionally put myself out there even if I fail. That is a sentiment inspired by composers like Pauline Oliveros and John Cage who deeply worked with improvisation and chance in music.

Q: Who created the algorithms used in your work?

A: I created them. The entire piece is made in an object-oriented programming environment called Max/MSP/Jitter. I have worked with Max for about four and a half years and most of my electronic music is created with it. As an example, the algorithm that calculates the fundamental frequency takes the year/100, the month/10, the day/10, the hour/100, the minute/100 and the second/10000 and adds the six values ​​together. On June 11, this resulted in most of the pitch material being in F, although at times it crept up to F# and then back down to F. This change happens so incrementally, however, that it is almost impossible to tell.

To experience some of Swenson’s music and learn more about his process, visit his website at kevinswenson.com.

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