I found out a few weeks ago that former KU faculty Ed Mattila died in late March (he was 85). I was not close to him but I did take two very influential classes with him while I was an undergrad at KU. I didn’t think much about it at the time but in retrospect I see his influence on my music and teaching style.
I transfered to the University of Kansas as a junior and my first semester there I enrolled in “Electronic Music I” which was a required course for all composition majors and taught by Dr. Mattila. It was a small class of maybe 8 students. The first half of the semester was on analog synthesis (we used an ARP 2500) and the second half was digital synthesis (DX-7). I’m going to point out that this was in 1994, FWIW. Our textbook was a coursepack: the ARP 2500 manual and the DX-7 manual. I remember almost nothing about class time other than a few presentations we had to given on various electronic pieces and composers. My students who are currently taking my spin on this very class will find that hauntingly familiar.
What I DO remember and what was the most significant and influential about the course was the studio time. We never had to compose a piece for the class, just create sounds. The students were paired up and for several weeks Ian Burns and I would sit in front of the ARP 2500 for about 2 hours a week, screwing around with the thing until we could get awesome sounds to come out. We didn’t fully know what we were doing but that didn’t stop us. I remember once we created an incredibly complex patch and then I asked “What if we ran this whole through (something I don’t quite remember what)” and Ian paused, then matter-of-fact-ly said “We’d invoke Satan.” Naturally we did it. Satan did not appear. Ian also managed to make a patch on the DX-7 that generated sounds Dr. Mattila couldn’t figure out. I’ll probably blog about Ian another time. He remains as influential in my musical life as any of my teachers.
I was the only student who took the “Electronic Music II” course the following semester. My task was simple: compose two pieces; one just for fixed media and one for performer and fixed media. Again, this is going to sound familiar to my current students. I had free access to the electronic music studio and each week I got a lesson with Dr. Mattila. I would talk about a piece of electronic music and then we would talk about what I was composing.
Remember that the first semester course never talked about recording any of the sounds we made. There were 2 reel-to-reel decks in the lab, a DAT machine, and 2 cassette decks which were all wired into a patchbay nobody other than Mattila understood. Other than the ARP 2500 I had the DX-7, an SY-77, and a TX816 with maybe a MC 50 as the interface? Somewhere along that semester we also picked up an ASR-10 sampling keyboard. I had no idea what I was doing.
My first piece was made by inputting one idea into the sequencer and playing it back through the TX816. I’d record it onto cassette then play the cassette back and run the sequence again with new sounds, different tempo, and such. I did that overdubbing maybe 12 times then I played one pass live on the SY-77. I called the piece Stretto, of course, and had to EQ out all the high frequencies to get rid of the deafening tape hiss. The second piece I did in a similar way but I used the ASR-10 almost entirely. It was a setting for voice and tape on Louise Bogan’s poem “Sub Contra” which I fell in love with in a poetry class around that time. I make a color-coded score and everything. Iended up not liking the vocal part (nobody’s fault but my own) and playing both works as tape pieces on my senior recital.
In essence, a lot of my electronic music teaching is very hands-off. Largely this is due to Dr. Mattila. He let me play with the gear, figure out a way to work, and just encouraged me to explore and create. I saw the potential of the medium and made things happen in my own way. In my own teaching, I am hesitant to show certain techniques or software because I don’t want my students to blindly use the things I use. I encourage curiosity and play (or try to). We focus more on art than on tech and this is intentional. At some level, we all teach the way we were taught. Thanks, Dr. Mattila, for just trusting me to find my own way. It worked.