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A photo of DJ Spooky

Guest artist DJ Spooky will present "Rhythm Science," a multimedia lecture on the history of digital art and media and the evolution of DJ culture from digital technologies.

Music festival with electronic ties

By Pauline Oo

Published on February 16, 2005

What do you get when you shake and punch a boom box? Well, if it's been tinkered with and modified, you could get some really cool electronic music.

From performers experimenting with unconventional musical devices and lap toppers jamming in a bar to musicians playing traditional instruments in a recital hall and entertainers hosting video screenings in an art museum... that's what you'll see at the U's 2005 SPARK Festival of Music, which runs February 16-20.

Currently in its third year, the festival brings renowned scholars and performers of electronic music to the West Bank Arts Quarter for an intensive weekend of lectures, performances, master classes, and multimedia installations on the latest in electronic and electroacoustic music and art. Most events are free and open to the public.

"The point here is to bring in [performers] and sounds to stretch people's ears a little bit," says Doug Geers, festival organizer and U assistant professor of music. "To me, normal is boring; weird is good. There's no point in us at the University hosting a festival of music that people could just go down to Target and buy a CD."

How to appreciate electronic music

U assistant professor Doug Geers offers some tips on what to listen to or look for.

* Instead of listening for a tune (because sometimes there isn't one), you should listen for sonic textures or the color of the sound. And pay attention to how the sound changes over time. (Something could happen in a few seconds or more slowly in a piece.)

* Look for how a computer is being used for a particular piece. Is the computer the icing on the cake of an instrument that's playing or is someone playing a computer? Or is the sound so mixed up, you can't tell which is which? (Sometimes it's a guessing game.)

"There are many different approaches to this music," says Geers. "If you're listening to it for the first time, you might say, 'Wow, this reminds me of the soundtrack from Blade Runner' or you could imagine this is what music might sound like from another planet or solar system. You could also not even think about what instrument is doing what, [and finally, you could] just imagine what you think the instrument would sound like that makes this kind of sound."

Electronic music, explains Geers, is "an umbrella term meaning anything that is made using electronic sounds as part of the music." Most rock music is electronic music, he says, "because they are using electronic instruments." As is hip-hop, he says, "because [the musicians are] using turntables, amplifiers, and microphones." Electroacoustic music, on the other hand, is a term for a type of experimental music which combines acoustic music with electronics. "And this music, generally, is sort of related to the classical music tradition," adds Geers, "in that we often write pieces for cellos and violins but pipe them through a bunch of weird electronic sound processors so they sound like crazy Jimmy Hendrix sounds."

Geers, who conceived of this festival "to shake this place up" (it was a Twin Cities first in 2003), readily concedes that electronic music is an acquired taste.

"I admit that not everyone is going to like everything, and that's part of the reason why many different things are happening," says Geers, who will perform a piece on Saturday. "I hope that people come and, first of all, have the patience to stay for a while and listen to a few things, because it could be that you'll hear five things and three of them you'll love but two you'll hate. Think of [this festival] as a smorgasbord--it's about experimenting and trying a little bit of this and little bit of that."

For a complete list of events, which includes an opening night lecture on the DJ culture and the history of digital art and media by DJ Spooky, a.k.a. conceptual artist and musician Paul Miller, see

In 2006, the festival will take place on the weekend of February 22 to 24. To learn more, see Spark 2006.

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