The natural bridge

If you’re a fan of Cher’s “Believe,” Kanye West’s “Heartless” and Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” then, boy, does this year’s TechnoSonics festival have the song for you. It’s called “Social Sounds from Whales at Night,” an eight-minute diddy that applies that ubiquitous Auto-Tune vocal effect to whale songs. 

The composer and sound collagist Douglas Quin, pictured recording seals in Antarctica, is a special guest at this year’s TechnoSonics festival. Photo by James Barker.

This piece is by visiting artist Emily Doolittle, a Canadian-born composer, who is coming to town for the 11th TechnoSonics, an illuminating survey of the high-concept sound art that’s produced in UVA’s Virginia Center for Computer Music. The festival runs Wednesday through Saturday with panel discussions, installations, a soundwalk and a performance Friday night at Live Arts. 

Doolittle’s piece fits neatly into the theme of this year’s festival, “Mediated Nature,” which explores the interplay between natural noises—taken broadly, to include the the sounds of classical instruments—and the technologies that can be used to manipulate them. Some of the pieces walk the line between field recordings and composition, like Doolittle’s. Another special guest, Douglas Quin, travels extensively to archive and compose with the sounds of disappearing species and habitats. (The Washington Post apparently called him the “Audobon of audio.”)

UVA’s graduate program in composition tends to encourage the mad scientist in its composers. Take, for example, the EMMI, or Expressive Machines Musical Instruments that will be on display outside Live Arts before Friday’s performance. In 2007, graduate students Steven Kemper, Troy Rogers and Scott Barton started making computer-controlled musical robots, which are exactly what they sound like: autonomous instruments that include modified conventional instruments. These little no-man-bands are surprisingly melodic, plucking and clicking away pieces that are a mere shade off the pop palette. 

The center’s director, Judith Shatin, will present “Elijah’s Chariot,” a piece named for the flaming biblical vehicle that ushers the prophet Elijah to heaven. In it, Shatin loops the sound of a string quartet and the shofar—a ram’s horn blown during the Jewish High Holidays. “There’s a continuum between the sound of the shofar, its electronic transformation, and then the integration of the string quartet,” says Shatin. 

She says that the the theme “captured what many of us were doing. Our goal is to combine the best of both worlds. Working in digital media will sometimes give me ideas for acoustic instruments, and vice versa. One of the things that I personally love about using sounds from nature is that one can create a kind of bridge between the sounds of the world around us and the transforming power of technology and acoustic instruments.” 

If it sounds radical, it may help to take a step back. “The piano is a technology, too,” says Shatin. “It was invented.”

For more information on TechnoSonics XI, visit sonicsxi or call UVA’s Music Department at 924-3052.


Signing off

During the Great WTJU Kerfuffle of 2010, the co-host of the station’s much-loved Saturday morning folk and bluegrass program “Leftover Biscuits” recorded a final show, anticipating that he would walk out on the station. But after UVA reversed course, postponing changes to the station, the 15-year volunteer DJ, Emmett Boaz, returned to the WTJU.

Boaz, 63, died of a heart attack on November 6 “doing one of the things he loved best:” hosting “Leftover Biscuits.” By the time you’ve read this, his final show will have been re-aired by co-host Peter Jones, but until next Saturday you can still hear Boaz’s signoff show in WTJU’s online Tape Vault, which archives shows for two weeks. In lieu of flowers, the Boaz family has asked that donations be made to the Emmett Boaz Memorial Fund at WTJU, P.O. Box 400811, Charlottesville, VA, 22904.

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