It’s Electric! Classical Music Meets the Avant Garde


Photo of Ryan Carter courtesy of Google Images

Photo of Ryan Carter courtesy of Google Images

Words By Erin Wolf

Strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion and laptops. Yes, laptops. Classical music is getting an electronic upgrade thanks to a myriad of ‘laptop orchestras‘ popping up across the globe, increasing interest and knowledge in musical technology and a desire to make a break from the traditional compositional boundaries of traditional instruments. Ryan Carter, born and raised in Wisconsin, who currently resides in New York, is part of the wave of electro-classical composers who have been creating soundwaves in the classical world since the ’60s. Carter will be premiering a new piece for Present Music, Milwaukee’s leading ensemble of avant garde, this Saturday at Discovery World‘s Pilot House. Carter talks to Fan-belt on what it’s like to be a young composer in a young genre.

Were you always a listener of electronic music, or was it that when you were doing your coursework, you were working with computers or electronic music in that sense?

It was more the former. I listen to a lot of electronic music, and I started dealing with producing my own electronic music when I was taking classes in music technology as an undergrad, and so the technical aspects of it, I learned in college. When I started producing electronic music, it was mainly because it was a form I was interested in, and for the most part, that was the music that I have made form myself, and not promoted to the same extent that I promote my concert music. It’s kind of just an activity that I do, which now, it’s starting to merge with the other music that I do.

Working with Present Music, does it make you feel that current classical music is going in the direction of the avant garde, and that melding classical and electronic might be the new wave of classical?

It’s one of the trends. There have always been different trends in classical music, and especially throughout the 20th century, things really split off into different directions, and you can kind of trace their developments. Working with electronic sounds and instrumental performance at the same time is not a very new idea — people started doing that in the 20th century and had an established canon from an electro-acoustic repertoire.

There’s a composer, Mario Davidovsky [’70s/’80s] who wrote a series of compositions for one instrument and electronic sounds where the two were very closely tied to each other; they were coordinated very precisely, and I like those pieces a lot, but the kind of musical language used is more of an avant garde, slightly less accessible, type of language. More like bleeps and bloops and things that sound random, that in fact, are very carefully calculated, but they sound kind of random because they’re just strange sounds. When people hear it for the first time, they think of that kind of electronic music as more sound effects than music because it doesn’t have the same kind of pitches and rhythms that we’re used to hearing. The development functions different than in classical music.

In mind of the classical purists, what’s it like introducing electronic sounds (although not a new idea) to a genre that’s been pretty unmoving in terms of instrumental composition?

Well, classical music has always been moving; it’s always been developing, and so if I’m presenting this work to people who don’t have this background in what’s happened with this music over the last hundred years, then it may seem unfamiliar to them, but I think a lot of people who listen to classical music in the broad sense are at least aware of things that have happened in the 20th century, so it comes down to personal taste. Some people just gravitate towards earlier styles, but they know what I’m doing is not detached from that lineage: it’s just an extension of it. There are very few moments when something really radical happens, so you can trace each step of the development of it.

What’s your favorite aspect of writing these innovative soundscapes that combine traditional and electronic styles?

My favorite thing is probably actually getting it performed and hearing it, live. I enjoy the composition of it and composing is what I do with most of my time, so I definitely have a passion for writing, but after spending so long on a work it’s really nice to see it come to fruition and see it performed in a concert.

Another aspect that I love, after spending all that time alone, working on a piece, during the rehearsals and the performances, I actually get to work with other people: other composers, performers and conductors, and finally get to get out of my apartment and deal with other humans.

What can you say about the performance this Saturday that might persuade those who might otherwise be on the fence about going?

My piece is going to be a set of short variations for clarinet, cello, piano and electronics, so there’s one theme and then there are sixteen variations that are each really short, like about forty seconds, each. Some of these variations are just piano and some involve all three instruments and electronics and it kind of incorporates all of this popular electronica that I’ve worked with for years, but also brings it into a context where I can experiment freely with musical sound.

In addition to that, there are going to be a bunch of exhibits at Discovery World and a laptop orchestra, which is a pretty new, musical performing force. There are certain programs you can use to create certain electronic sounds, live, or to manipulate those sounds, live, so in recent years people have been putting together ensembles, which are just a bunch of folks at their laptops, making all kinds of sounds and interacting with each other in an improvisatory setting. That should be a lot of fun.

Present Music’s “Sound Brain”at Discovery World (500 N. Harbor Drive) premiers new work by Ryan Carter as well as performances by the Milwaukee Laptop Orchestra (MiLO). Two performances on Saturday, February 21st: 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Technology exhibitions and experience performances in Discovery World’s Pilot House and other areas of the museum will also be available. 


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