Oliver Schneller can smell fear. As an Eastman School of Music professor of composition and the director of the Computer Music Center, Schneller aims to alleviate this dread by extolling the virtues of electronic music and its place in the acoustic music realm via EARS — the Eastman Audio Research Studio. EARS embraces electronic music and puts it forth to ESM students, from those who are inquisitive to those who appear perhaps a little timid at the prospect.
EARS is a learning platform for research, experimentation, and the composing of new works though the implementation of software programs, analog gear, digital interfaces, and loudspeaker installation. It is sublime. It is severe. It is a fascinating juxtaposition of musical expression and technology. EARS has recently expanded to include a 16 speaker facility to introduce students to creating works with multiple sound sources. But for some, there is still that trepidation, that fear.
"It's the fear of the unfamiliar," Schneller says. "Many of them, they're listening to something they can't put a label on. But the act of composition, by definition, means to explore the unknown."
Schneller believes exposure to electronic music, and the results from its marriage to more conventional musical strains and instrumentation, is important to students in and out of the program.
"It's good that we have curricular anchoring," he says. "So they have to take one semester of electronic music. It's required on the bachelor's and master's level. Doctoral students don't have to do it, but it's actually the doctoral students who tend to come and stay longer."
Schneller came to ESM in 2015 after Computer Music Center director and founder Allan Schindler retired. The son of German diplomats, Schneller grew up in Africa and the Philippines. He was always a curious lad.
"As a kid, I tore radios apart," he says. "I was looking at the parts. I wanted to find out how they worked. I was looking for the speaker membranes. I think that was my first experience with electro-acoustic music. In high school I played the saxophone. I was a jazz fanatic. I loved Coltrane and Charlie Parker; they were my heroes. The first computer language I picked up was BASIC. It was a very general program that ran on Apple II. And I programmed, just for the fun of it, little algorithmic compositions."
Schneller earned a degree in musicology at the University of Bonn before studying at the New England Conservatory where he developed his interest in the combination of electronics and more traditional instruments. While at City University of New York on fellowship, Schneller built the school's studio for electronic music.
"I also went to Columbia University to study with French composer Tristan Murail; a member of the Spectral School and my main teacher."
In his preliminary explorations, Schneller says the electric component was more of a spice, an addition, an afterthought. It was the more conventional instruments and their parts that were tantamount.
"In my first works it was definitely the instruments that dominated," he says. "Because I had more experience and more proficiency with them. And the electronics were an added sound quality. By the time I was writing pieces, there was no distinction, really. There were instrumental parts that were notated and the electronic parts were being orchestrated. The electronics were just another instrument and sonically a part of the whole; they were just another sound level that was integrated into the orchestral sound."
But when dissonance and the abstract qualities associated with plugging the electronic in with the organic come together, questions arise. Where is the musicality? Where is the melody?
"With most pieces of music we don't just have the melody," Schneller says. "We also have harmony and rhythm, and with most pieces of music we can define which is the melody, which is the accompanying harmony, and which is the rhythm that carries them both. So we are definitely working with those three agents, but sometimes we just let the harmony come forth and it just sits there and dominates like a solo. Then we have melody that isn't long, it just comes out in little snippets, so it's a jagged melody but it's still a melody, though you don't immediately recognize it. And the rhythm holds and binds it all together."
Although the electro acoustic movement may be seen as a contemporary phenomenon, it would be a misnomer to consider it in its infancy, as Schneller is quick to point out.
"Thomas Edison first recorded his voice in 1877," he says.
And although it may confuse and confound the gentry, it seems to be met with less and less opposition due to the passion and unwavering work of educators like Schneller and programs like EARS.
"It depends where you are," he says. "In the European contemporary music scene this is, by now, totally accepted. There is no resistance. Eastman is a venerable and great institution, and Allan Schindler did a fantastic job. He was engaged in getting this music performed. And when you have a performance, it means you're one step closer to getting it accepted."
Schneller's teaching style is hands-off, allowing for a more unfettered exploratory and organic learning experience.
"The aim for me," he says. "Is to let them explore and learn by themselves. There is no right and wrong, but of course the results will be evaluated. I won't let anyone flunk just because it is something I don't like, but we will critically discuss it. He or she can provoke with a piece of one single sound stretched over 10 minutes. When they submit this piece, I would ask 'What were you thinking? What is your artistic intention?' And if that composer can convince me and can convince others on the committee that this is a necessity — 'I had to write this and I want people to consider the sound' — then they'll pass."
To someone like Schneller everything has a place in this music, be it in nature, triggered electronically, or altered and manipulated by acoustics and speaker placement. And whether deemed a blessing or a curse, music is everywhere.
"It is a blessing I think," Schneller says. "It's not just that we hear things but also as humans we track sounds and space. So we hear the birds coming from the sky and we hear traffic. What would happen if one of my students were to compose a piece where the birds are coming out of the ground and the traffic sound floats from out of the sky? We can do this using loudspeakers; turn things around and hence create an awareness of the spatiality of audio which is our daily experience. We could not survive without it. As humans, we are optimized to survive and the hearing apparatus — our two ears — help us survive. And we might as well use this amazing apparatus in spatial orientation and composition." For Schneller, this includes the prospective audience and how they ingest and digest.
"We're trying very hard to make our shows as interesting and contrasted as possible," he says. "Without losing focus, of course. I'd love to reach out into the community and have EARS be a center for discovery for laymen and professionals alike. I'd like to expand what the scope of composition means at Eastman."