When School of Music lecturer Jack Vees asked colleague Ben Verdery which band he would like for a piece Vees was writing him, Vees was surprised by his answer.
“I thought he was going to say something like The Beatles or The Who — you know, something from his or my youth,” Vees said.
Instead Verdery asked for “The National,” an indie rock group featuring guitarist Bryce Desner MUS ’99.
Software available at the Center for Studies in Music Technology helped make the piece, and Verdery’s performance of it on a custom-built guitar at Carnegie Hall last October, possible.
Affectionately referred to as “kismet” by those who frequent its violet-walled rooms littered with computer monitors and sound mixers in the basement of Sprague Hall, the CSMT studio is a playground for innovative composers like Vees, who has directed the center since coming to Yale in the 1980s. Though the center itself has had many homes — it was originally located in the basement of Leigh Hall before moving to Woolsey Hall and finally to its current home in the basement of Sprague Hall — it has retained the same basic layout since it opened in the 1980s. The center consists of one large studio which can be used for ensemble recording sessions and a few other small office rooms where students can work independently, Vees said.
Associate Dean of the School of Music Michael Yaffe, who oversees the Center, said that its equipment and classes are invaluable resources to any musician working in the 21st century, especially the student and faculty composers from the School of Music who have found a home there.
MAKING A TEXTURED SOUND
While Vees has spent the majority of the last 25 years organizing the School of Music’s technological resources, he has also dedicated time to his own work as a composer with a strong interest in electronic music.
The piece he wrote for Verdery, who has won awards for his classical guitar recordings, is one of several the center’s director has written for solo performers that feature electronic backup music. Formerly referred to as “instrument and tape pieces” before the backing tracks were digitalized, Vees creates a backup track for the soloists by sampling music from an album of their favorite musician, he said.
After getting permission from The National to use their music, Vees said he listened to their album “High Violet” to figure out how he could use the tracks to compliment Verdery’s solo guitar performance.
“For indie rock, it’s very thickly textured and it has a lot of stuff going on,” Vees said of the group’s sound.
He picked about 10 excerpts from the CD and all of the samples used are featured in the piece in the same order in which they appear on the original album. But Vees did not simply cut and paste the band’s music.
To give the sound resonance, he recorded the sound of the songs when played back on speakers that were placed in a grand piano while holding down the sustain pedal, a pedal that elongates sounds from a piano.
“It’s a specialized kind of music that exists in the crack between pop music and academic music,” Vees said of the songs he composed in this way. “But there’s a lot of space to be filled in between those two.”
A NEW GENERATION
A composer himself, Vees has been able to make the center user-friendly for student composers at the School of Music.
For Adrian Knight MUS ’11, the speakers and recording system available to him through the center have been crucial to his work.
“It’s kind of like a free space for composers and it’s a little bit secret,” Knight said. “Not many people know about it and even among the School of Music people, it’s kind of a hidden place.”
Among Knight’s projects is an experimental disco piece he is working on with guitarist Max Zuckerman MUS ’11. For this piece and many of his other works, Knight said he enjoys using a program called PaulStretch which allows users to slow songs down to fractions of their original speed. Another piece Knight is working on is based on the results of slowing down a three minute cannon by Bach into a two-hour-long “meta-cannon.”
“I like things that take time,” Knight said. “In real life, 20 minutes isn’t that long a time, so for me a 20-minute piece is very short depending on how and when and where it’s heard.”
IN WITH THE OLD
Aswell as having some of the music industry’s latest technologies, the center is also home to some old favorites, including a Hammond organ, an instrument common in 1960s pop music. Yaffe said one of his favorite things in the center is a synthesizer from the 1970s that sits right in the center’s entrance.
“It gives a perspective on different technologies over the years,” Yaffe said. “I don’t think that the composers are going to be using the equipment right now, but the fact that they’re seeing it there is important for when they listen to electronic music from 1965 [so] that they understand how it’s done which is very different from today.”
Vees highlighted the role that older equipment plays in shaping the kind of technology being used and invented now.
“It’s hard to know what is really going to stick in terms of any of this technological stuff,” Vees said. “We learn about the old stuff because it influenced the way that people do things today.”
The center relocated to its current home in Sprague Hall on College Street after the building was renovated in 2003.