Techne project takes electronic music beyond boundaries

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Expect the unexpected when Suzanne Thorpe and Bonnie Jones (pictured) appear at the Bridge in the far out electronica improv show Techne. Photo courtesy of the Bridge PAI Expect the unexpected when Suzanne Thorpe and Bonnie Jones (pictured) appear at the Bridge in the far out electronica improv show Techne. Photo courtesy of the Bridge PAI

Accomplished local jazz musician John D’earth says people get too hung up on what is music and what isn’t music. Kids, for example, don’t need to play an instrument properly to be making music. They just need to be making noise.

If you’re too square for that jive, Suzanne Thorpe and Bonnie Jones are ready to blow your ever-loving mind.

The two electronic musicians launched Techne, a musical education project, in 2010. They’ve since been touring the country putting on concerts as companion pieces to three-hour workshops designed to teach young girls the art of electronica. Charlottesville will get its chance to give Thorpe and Jones a listen on July 11 and 12.

To prepare yourself for Friday’s concert at The Bridge PAI, clear your mind of any notions you may have about “electronic music.” This is completely different. While Thorpe plays something somewhat close to an instrument you might understand, the electroacoustic flute, Jones produces music through “circuit bending.” To put it in (somewhat) plain terms, she opens the back of digital delay pedals, which common bands use to make riff loops, and produces experimental sounds by manipulating the exposed circuit boards.

Thorpe and Jones don’t end the experimentation there. Not only does Jones make joyful noises using something that looks like it just came out of a busted smartphone, Thorpe jams with her.

“It is improvised, so we don’t know what will happen,” Thorpe said. “We have certain techniques that tend to be fairly consistent, and we are familiar with each other, but every space we perform in is different. We don’t know acoustically how that space will respond.”

Oh, so it’s like jazz, you might think. Don’t go there.

“It is problematic to use the term jazz. That is a loaded term with a lot of history,” Thorpe said. “The term creative improvisation is better applied.”

Fans of more mainstream electronica, not to mention music in general, won’t be completely left out when Techne takes the stage at the Bridge. Thorpe said she and Jones employ a lot of the same tools used by electro-poppers and their ilk, as well as “a shared approach to creativity.” Plus, UVA grad and classically trained guitarist Monika Khot will open the show with her own brand of electroacoustic songwriting.

The goal of Techne’s workshops, one of which C’ville will get a taste of on July 12, is similar to that of the duo’s music, according to Thorpe and Jones. Where their sonic experimentation seeks to throw off the trappings of what is traditionally thought of as music, the seminars are geared toward young girls because electronica and technology are male-dominated fields.

“Not only do we need more democracy in the field, we need better representation across the board,” Thorpe said. “I don’t think the white males that have been in charge have been doing such a good job, and we need more voices.”

While the stated goal of the workshops is to teach attendees how to make electronic tunes, Thorpe and Jones said girls can take more away from the proceedings than just the ability to make a noise more shocking than that coming from a novice violin player’s bedroom. They’ll learn the inner-workings of electronic music—circuitry and electric flow, voltage control, transducers—and they’ll be given the opportunity to break through the barriers that keep them from diving into technology and figuring it out themselves in the first place.

“One of our main goals is to introduce young women to technology in a space and place that has positive role modeling and is supportive,” Jones said. “We use electronic music as a vehicle.”

Girls 12 and up that grab one of the 10 available spots at the free seminar will learn how to make a contact microphone (basically a disc attached to a quarter inch cable that you plug into an amp) and build on that device to create a customized electronic instrument using a box and everyday items. At the end of the workshop, the girls get a chance to jam along with Techne using their homemade music-maker.

Thorpe and Jones said participants don’t need any prior knowledge of electronics to learn the types of skills they’ll teach them. All they need is the ability to keep their ears open.

“Listening is fundamental in any engagement,” Thorpe said.

Bridge executive director Matthew Slaats, who taught alongside Thorpe at an arts school in Manhattan, said the art Techne makes is important not only for its musicality but also for its application to engineering fields and other artistic disciplines.

“As an artist myself, I have used sound in a multitude of ways,” Slaats said. “Opening up the way sound and recording are used to create artwork is something I am interested in seeing happen more and more at the Bridge. This is not just concert-based; we’re thinking about how sound is a medium for creativity.”

Only 50 or so people will be able to crowd into the Bridge for the Techne show. If you don’t make the cut, take apart your smartphone.

What female musician inspires you? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

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