Calculated Operations: Electronic Chamber Music Inspired by Detroit Techno (2015)

Each year, I give my Electronic Chamber Music ensemble a theme to which they respond. We listen to music, read, brainstorm, research, jam, compose, workshop, rehearse, design, build, and iterate, all leading to a public performance. The concerts usually consist of new arrangements or realizations of works from the repertoire, as well as original music by myself and/or the students.

In 2015, I gave the group the theme Techno, broadly considered. I did this for a number of reasons. Techno is Detroit music. It emerged from Detroit in the early 1980s, and people the world over associate Detroit with Techno.

Detroit is just about a 30 minute drive from Ann Arbor, yet to many at the University of Michigan it is a world away. An anecdote: When I attended an orientation for new international faculty at the University of Michigan I was told that “Chicago is only 4.5 hours away by train” and “there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer for worthwhile causes in Detroit.” Although the staff told us this with the best intentions, the subtext was clear: Chicago is where you go for arts, culture, and entertainment; Detroit is nothing more than poor people who need your help.

I admittedly was not expert in Detroit Techno going into this project, but I was eager to explore it together with the students. The goal was to approach the music honestly and respectfully; to set aside pretenses about the city, and to acknowledge that this globally significant music emerged from here.

As in all of my teaching, our approach was experiential. To know this music we were going to try to make it. But of course we aren’t from Detroit, it’s not the 1980s, and oh, we have 15 musicians in the ensemble, whereas Techno is normally performed by a solo DJ, or occasionally a duo. An imperative of this ensemble is liveness, so we went into it knowing everyone was going to perform. Admitting we weren’t going to try to make “authentic” Detroit Techno — which would have been by definition inauthentic — was liberating. It allowed us to respond and to revere Detroit Techno without being beholden to the stylistic idiosyncrasies of house, techno, drum and bass, trance, electro, that ardent electronic dance music listeners love to quibble over. We did our thing, which was geeky, ambitious, performative, technologically sophisticated, and deeply musical.

The show was on 4/4 2015 at the Jam Handy in Detroit. Here are some excerpts from the show:

The Tridents: Light Based Controllers for Techno

Brickbreaker — Techno video game jam programmed by Max Morrison

Altra Voce – Luciano Berio

Luciano Berio, Altra Voce at UMMA Ann Arbor from Michael Gurevich on Vimeo.

I performed Luciano Berio’s composition Altra Voce, for flute (arranged for french horn), voice and live electronics at University of Michigan Museum of Art, March 29, 2013 with Jennifer Goltz (soprano) and Adam Unsworth (horn). For the performance I created a new realization of the electronics part entirely from Berio’s score. The electronic performer is instructed to capture particular sections of the instrumentalists’ parts in real-time. The samples, as well as the live parts, are pitch-shifted and spatialized with prescribed trajectories across 8 speakers, with precise timings indicated on the score. My realization used Max and assorted MIDI controllers. The first performance was part of the U-M School of Music, Theatre, & Dance’s SMTD@UMMA series.

Second performance in Britton Recital Hall in January, 2014.

Radiophonics (2013)

My Electronic Chamber Music group’s 2013 Spring Concert — Radiophonics — featured new and classic compositions using radios. Over the course of the semester, we explored the theme of radio: radio as a medium, as a technology, as an institution, as a musical instrument.

Number Stations (2013) by Conor Barry from Michael Gurevich on Vimeo.

Performance by Conor Barry and Brian Kelley from the University of Michigan’s Electronic Chamber Music Spring 2013 concert: Radiophonics, directed by Michael Gurevich. Presented by the Department of Performing Arts Technology, School of Music, Theatre, & Dance.

This choreographed piece for two radios and two performers derives its source material from The Conet Project, a large collection of recordings of “number station” broadcasts. These shortwave radio stations first appeared after WWII, broadcasting mysterious coded messages often in the form of spoken sequences of numbers, to be deciphered by spies in the field. By extracting the rhythmic qualities of these broadcasts, we try to translate these covert messages into actions, oftentimes highlighting their more absurd characteristics.

Different Stations – For Radiophonic Quartet from Michael Gurevich on Vimeo.

Different Stations by Brian Kelley
Different Stations is an improvisation in which one of the voices is particularly unpredictable: live broadcast radio. Through sampling and looping, radiophonic voices are tamed and ordered, becoming an instrument in its own right–-one that requires two performers to play in close coordination. A violinist and pianist must both find and create musical space to coexist with this new radiophonic voice. The title is nod to Steve Reich, from whom the hypnotic rhythmic elements and slowly unfolding form also derive.