Switched on electronica

You only need to browse the overwhelming musical content of Internet sites such as MySpace to see just how music has evolved, the myriad of bands and musicians that are creating and sharing music, doing so because the electronic tools with which they can tend to each and every aspect of their craft have never been so user-friendly and affordable. Music is at everyone’s fingertips, and while the digital revolution has played a major role in refining this, the biggest impact upon the transformation of music from acoustic to electronic actually came out a couple of decades earlier.

“I think the explosion really happened when analogue synthesizers came out, the famous ones by Moog and Buchla,” says local composer O. Powers. “They were on opposite sides of the country, but both came up with synthesizers around the same time, in 1964. And then there was this very famous album called Switched on Bach in 1968, and everybody heard about the synthesizer because of the success of that album. After that, electronic music really did change, because in the ’50s there were no short cuts or easy ways to do it.”

Prior to the “shortcut” of the synthesizer, a select group of cutting-edge electronic composers worked in relative obscurity gathering sounds on tape before painstakingly cutting and splicing them into harmonic sequences. And when Powers, who is also a music professor at Ventura College, throws forth a performance of his own electronic compositions at the college on Oct. 10, he will also offer an insight into his musical inspiration. Included in this will be two examples of early electronica: 1958’s “Poème électronique” by Edgar Varèse and 1961’s “Luna Park” by Tod Dockstader.

“I first heard these pieces when I was very young,” Powers says. “It was the cascade of interesting and unexpected sounds out together that got my imagination going as a kid, and when I grew up I decided to learn more about it and decided it was a very rich area to explore musically. They were both pieces of what the composers called organized sound and were basically done with tape recording and through tape editing, filters and various other effects. But they were really just pieces made purely out of sounds.”

Born and raised in Ventura, Powers is a graduate of Ball State University in Indiana with a doctorate of art in music. But it was perhaps his own parents who exerted the greatest influence upon his musical evolution. While neither were musicians themselves, both shared a wide and varied appreciation of the medium. And in being an avid record collector, his father’s interest covered everything from classical to jazz and world music through modern music — something that was to become a foundation of Powers’ own musical undertakings.

“I first fell in love with classical music, but then I got interested in avant-garde music,” Powers says. “People like Varèse and Stockhausen and some other big names in the field, like Ligeti, whose music was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was actually listening to avant-guard music before I listened to the Beatles, and when they came out with Sgt. Peppers it was kind of like both worlds were coming together”

On Oct. 10, Powers’ own compositions during his performance will see him embrace a suitably varied range of technology. Along with a vintage theremin and programmed computers, Powers will also randomly sample broadcast music and voices live on stage and sequence them into an immaculate soundscape — an undertaking that, not so long ago, would have taken months of work in a studio.

“I have got my computer programmed to generate sounds at my command and to also manipulate them at my command,” Powers says. “One of my pieces will be a very spontaneous kind of collage. I bring an FM radio with me on stage and it has 16 preset stations, and I am going to take sounds off the air and loop them into rhythmic patterns, and it is very entertaining. But I never know what’s going to happen because I hear the sounds in the piece for the first time the same time the audience does.”

As well as Powers’ performance of electronic compositions this week, he recently heralded the debut performance of an acoustic piece he recently composed, titled “Harmonic Motions.” Written for two pianos, eight hands, the composition affords Powers the opportunity to explore a very different side of his musical personality. His musical gaze might very well cover the sonic spectrum; it is something he feels represents his own inspiration.

“Some people might be bothered by that, but I have always liked lots of different kinds of music and wanted to try my hand at each one,” Powers says. “For the piano piece or any acoustic [piece] in general, when I am writing for instruments I am inspired by writing things that are playable and fun to listen to, and when I am creating music electronically that’s when I let my mind wander to very far out regions. That’s where I like to get very far-out musically so by having two different styles I am able to satisfy either kind of yearning.”    

Dr. O. Powers performs An Evening of Electronic & Electro-Acoustic Music on Oct. 10 at 8 p.m. at the Ventura College Theater (4700 Loma Vista Rd., Ventura). For more information, call 654-6392.