Giant swinging pendulum. Check. Colored lights through a glass-bottomed reflecting pool. Check. Spatially divided ensembles of brass, percussion, and cell phones. Check.
These are some of the ingredients that will go into Jeff Snyder’s “Wave Fanfare,” a specially commissioned work conceived for the inauguration of the new Lewis Center for the Arts and Department of Music at Princeton University. The multimedia event will be presented twice, on Friday and Saturday, October 6 and 7.
Original music will be performed on specially made electronic instruments designed by the composer and the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk) with the participation of So Percussion, the university’s ensemble-in-residence, and the Brooklyn-based TILT Brass Ensemble. Kinetic lighting, wave robotics, and rigging will all interact with the buildings themselves.
“We wanted to riff off of the architecture and think about what the architecture can inspire,” says Snyder, the university’s director of electronic music and a recipient of a 2017 New Jersey State Council on the Arts individual artist fellowship award in the category of music composition. “So I collaborated on this piece with Axel Kilian, who’s an architect, and Jane Cox, who’s a lighting designer, and the three of us put our heads together to try to figure out what we might be able to do that would really bounce off of the new building.”
Cox, a Tony Award nominee, is director of the university’s theater program. Kilian is an assistant professor at the school of architecture. Snyder also acknowledges the input of architect Ryan Luke Johns, who is a visiting lecturer. Located at the intersection of Alexander Road and University Place, the arts complex was designed by Steven Holl Architects. The three buildings — the Wallace Dance Building and Theater, the New Music Building, and the Arts Tower — house rehearsal, performance, and teaching spaces.
“The buildings are kind of joined together by this forum area, and then there’s a level above called the plaza,” Snyder says. “The plaza is basically outdoors. That’s the open sky area. There are some trees and there’s a reflecting pool. Then the forum is underneath that, and it’s between all the three different buildings. There are skylights that are underneath the pool, so that basically you get these cool patterns of light through the water on the floor of the forum. It was an architectural detail that was inspiring to us. We worked on this piece to try to accentuate and create something based on that. There are several different skylights inside this pool. We took the center one and decided to focus on that.”
Kilian designed a giant pendulum to hang above the pool, where it will swing back and forth metronomically, casting light through the water onto the performers below. It’s a theatrical effect, but it also acts as a guide of sorts for the performers, Snyder says.
“The pendulum is connected by ropes to the tops of the three buildings, literally tying them together. Then there’s a brass ensemble in the light of the pendulum, under the skylight. Members of the PLOrk ensemble are surrounding the audience, each underneath one of the other skylights, and they’ve got individual lights that they’re holding that point upwards that are controlled by the sounds they make. We’re trying to take the sound and the light and the motion and make it all connect.”
PLOrk, one of the first groups of its kind, was co-founded by Princeton professors Perry Cook and Dan Trueman (another 2017 State Council on the Arts award winner) in 2005. While the ensemble’s concerts in some respects emulate those of traditional instruments, the results are often radically transformed.
“We always take advantage of new technologies and get inspired by new stuff that’s come out, or by older concepts that haven’t really been applied to music before,” Snyder says. “A lot of the time that involves building new instruments for that piece, both in software and in hardware. There are no standard instruments, so we have to make them.”
Snyder became director of the ensemble in 2013. He was named the group’s co-director with his arrival at the university in 2010. “I think the fact that I build instruments was really attractive [to the university], because it’s basically necessary if you’re going to be in charge of one of these kinds of groups.”
In addition, the music department recently named Snyder director of electronic music, with an eye toward the creation of a certificate program. He joins the university’s choir, jazz, and orchestra directors as an associate director of the program in music performance. “It’s a nice bit of recognition of how important electronics are becoming in the world of music,” he says.
“I’m excited about the new building, since it’s the first time PLOrk has had its own space,” he says. “We’ve got a nice room, and we can leave our equipment set up instead of setting up and tearing down every rehearsal. The fact that we now have a room dedicated to live electronic music demonstrates a commitment on behalf of the music department to continuing Princeton’s leading role in the electronic music scene. Also the whole building is beautiful. The new Lee Rehearsal Room is breathtaking, and the whole forum space between the buildings is very inviting.”
For the opening weekend’s performances the musicians of PLOrk will move around the forum with speakers strapped to them, using mobile phones as instruments.
“So Percussion are also involved,” Snyder says. “The forum area is really huge, so we’re trying to figure out how to create something that feels like it belongs in a space that large, that takes advantage of it, as opposed to just being dwarfed by it. The percussion and the orchestra members are all far dispersed around the audience, aiming for a really spatial effect. It’s a site-specific composition, coming out of the space, rather than the other way around.”
The 15-minute work is partly composed and partly improvised.
“It’s not really improvisation in the sense of expressivity, that the musicians feel something and they go for it; it’s more improvisation in the sense of there’s a framework within which there are instructions for making sound. It’s like an algorithm describing a process, but it’s not as prescribed as what to do in what rhythm and what notes to play.”
The performances will be further distinguished by the debut of the Feedback Trombone, a new instrument invented by the composer.
Originally from Minnesota, Snyder earned his bachelor of arts in music composition degree from the University of Madison-Wisconsin. That was followed by a master of arts in music composition and doctor of musical arts in music composition (with distinction) from Columbia University. Both of his parents studied physics, and his father was an engineer. “I was able to actually get some help from him once I really started getting interested in the electrical engineering side of things, which was really nice,” Snyder says.
Even so, it was just the beginning, and Snyder says he was largely self-taught.
“I really come at this from the music side, rather than the tech side,” he says. “It combines engineering and the arts in an interesting way. Most of my training is on the arts side, on the music side, as a composer, but I was always really interested in electronics. I played electronic instruments since I was 14 or so. I got myself a little sampler so that I could record sounds and mess with them, and that was really fun. I’m 38, so in my teenage years it was starting to be possible to really edit on computers, which was really exciting for me. But I didn’t really learn much about the underlying engineering aspects of it — of how are these tools actually created, how would you building your own electronic instruments, that kind of stuff — until much later.”
He says he acquired those skills after he moved to New York City when he was in his 20s. Though he never had formal engineering training, he gravitated to some important mentors, including Douglas Repetto at Columbia University.
“He helped me out a lot in learning how to do circuitry and pointing me toward what I needed to know next, basically, as I taught myself. The way my knowledge has ended up accumulating, in common with a lot of people that are self-taught at something, I have really specialized knowledge in certain things, and then I have huge holes in my knowledge in anything that doesn’t actually really have anything to do with what I’ve needed to do yet. I have an interesting set of skills. Of course, there’s always new technology, new possibilities opening up, so it’s kind of like looking for what else you can learn, basically.”
In addition to his academic duties, Snyder is the proprietor of Snyderphonics, a small business through which he distributes his musical inventions. Its office is listed as the downtown Princeton home Snyder shares with his children’s author/editor wife, Anica Mrose Rissi.
“It’s an interesting intersection with my research stuff,” he says. “New musical instrument design is where a lot of my research effort goes. But I also believe that new musical instruments aren’t particularly useful unless people are playing them in music. Getting my instruments played is a major part of seeing whether they are successful and having them make a difference. Part of the way I do that is to come out with some of the hardware instruments I’ve developed as products.”
To date his greatest success has been the Manta, described on Snyderphonics’ website as a unique touch-system interface for music and video control. “That’s the one instrument I’ve made where there are other people for whom it’s their main instrument. I’ve got a lot of things that I’ve made that are more one-offs or I’ve made them for a specific piece. That’s one of the things that makes me really happy, that there are people who have picked up the Manta and developed virtuosity with it. They have serious instrumental skills focused on that instrument. For me, that’s success. That shows me that I made something that matters.”
Ignoring the idea of enough is enough, Snyder can be seen and heard performing in a variety manifestations: a member of experimental electronic duo exclusiveOr, the avant jazz group The Federico Ughi Quartet, and the improvisatory noise trio The Mizries. He also fronts Owen Lake and the Tragic Loves (Owen is Snyder’s middle name), appearing as his electro-country alter-ego to combine “a passion for classic country with an arsenal of homemade electronic instruments” and creating “unique music that defies existing labels and forges a new sound, ‘electro-country.’”
Returning to topic of the new Lewis Center, Snyder says he is happy with the facilities, which seem to parallel his mission as a teacher of courses like Transformations in Engineering and the Arts. Pitched at students living at the intersection of different fields, as he was and continues to be, Transformations addresses both the aesthetic and technical sides of a hybrid art. Similarly, he sees the potential of the new arts complex to draw fresh things from established disciplines.
“I think perhaps the most important aspect of the new building is the role it will take in joining the performing arts at Princeton together,” he says. “Instead of having separate departments doing their thing in their own disconnected spaces, the building brings them into one space, and I hope it will encourage artistic collaboration. We even have one large room, called the CoLab, which doesn’t belong to any department. It is designed as a multi-use space for collaborations between the arts and for projects that live outside the lines of traditional practices.”
Wave Fanfare, Lewis Center for the Arts Plaza and Forum, Princeton University. Friday and Saturday, October 6 and 7, 8 p.m. Free. arts.princeton.edu.