Enter Room 2401 of the UW's Humanities Building these days, and you'll likely find Daniel Grabois tinkering with keyboards, speakers, microphones, pedals and all kinds of high-tech gizmos that now litter the space.
As the founder of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s new $161,000 Electro-Acoustic Research Space — EARS for short — it’s now Professor Grabois’ job to learn how to use them all.
“I'm at the bottom of my learning curve with this stuff,” said the professor of horn at the Mead Witter School of Music, kneeling down to futz around with a enormous matrix of effects pedals.
"But it's really fun."
Next to the pedals stands an electronic theremin; next to that, tower speakers, a synthesizer and a mixing board. In the opposite corner there’s a Reactable — a high-end educational music-making tool where placing and wiggling tiles on a digital table generates noise.
Gramboi has a soft spot for one of the most iconic instruments in the history of electronic music, the Moog Synthesizer.
“When I'm in here at the end of a long day and feeling really really frustrated, I can...," he said, trailing off as he hammered out some improvised riffs on the Moog, twisting knobs to modulate the sound.
The goal of the new collection, financed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation with the support of the vice chancellor for research and graduate education, is to facilitate innovative and creative research that harnesses electronic audio — sounds that have been generated by machines, or transformed by them in some way. Said Grabois, it's an opportunity to creatively explore musical ideas using modern, innovative tools.
“Instead of saying, all we're going to do is practice scales and go get jobs in an orchestra, we're saying, there's a creative side to this and let's see what's around us,” said Grabois.
The field of electro-acoustics has fundamentally shaped music for the last century. There have been hundreds of electronic innovators in the mainstream, from Jimi Hendrix to Radiohead, as well as in the realm of classical music with the likes of composers from John Cage to Milton Babbitt.
Grabois himself has been exploring electro-acoustic music for years, ever since he was chair of the contemporary performance at the Manhattan School of music. When he arrived at the UW-Madison six years ago, he bought some equipment himself and created an electronic improv band called $2 Broom.
Still, academic institutions like the UW-Madison school often lack electro-acoustic music in their research or curriculum, said Grabois.
“This is a big stretch from what we're used to doing,” said Grabois.
One reason for why spaces like EARS are rare, said Grabois, is that they can be tough to justify when the time and resources that go into more traditional kinds of musical pursuits — learning to play an analog instrument at a professional level, for example — are already extreme.
“It's really hard to go from being an elementary school French Horn player to a professional French horn player — forget about this other stuff,” said Grabois. “And there's not a lot of job openings where somebody's looking for an electric French player.”
Still, having a space for electro-acoustics is a huge opportunity for the school, said Grabois.
For one thing, skillsets in music production and audio engineering are increasingly in demand, he said. Plus, students’ understanding of music have been fundamentally shaped by digital sounds and equipment, making EARS all the more relevant. Grabois said he’s seen students walk in, and their “eyes open like saucers.”
“Our students have their ears open to the world as it is, and they hear electro-acoustic music all the time,” he said.
The space also gives the music department an array of digital tools for the “dissemination” and analysis of research and music, said Grabois. There’s a camcorder for recording or streaming video, a massive printer for creating musical scores, and computers with software from Ableton Live to sophisticated data analysis tools.
The space has been officially opened, but it’s still very much in development. Grabois said he’s still trying to figure out how to use the equipment before opening the space up to students with ideas for research — compositions they want to try out, ideas for using the new equipment, lectures they may want to record and post to YouTube.
If students express enough interest in it, he may open up the space to any students who just want to tinker around. However, he stressed that the space is not so much a library, and more a space for formal research.
“It is a lab, and not a sandbox,” he said.
Grabois himself is thinking ahead about how he’ll incorporate the space into future curriculum. He also hopes to make a recording in the near future using the new equipment. He might even get $2 Broom back together.