By Scott W. Harrison
The auditorium lights went down and the music began, a beat pulsating beneath an array of synthesizing keyboards and throbbing bass guitar.
On stage, in front of a multi-colored projection screen, were seven silhouetted figures – the members of Washington and Lee’s Electronic Music Ensemble.
Beginning with a throwback cover of The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” the ensemble performed six original songs and two covers, exploring a range of electronic styles with the latest digital technology.
In the last few years, electronic music has benefitted from a surge in new music technology. The genre has achieved mainstream popularity, especially among college students.
Graham Spice, the music department’s audio engineer and director of the ensemble, said he started the ensemble last year to meet this growing popularity. He wanted to design an ensemble that gave students hands-on experience with new music technologies.
“The majority of students have no experience making this type of music,” Spice said.
The ensemble allows students to explore new techniques, compose their own music and think about playing instruments in new ways. On stage, the students used a range of new technologies, including integrating looping pedals, drum pads and composition software for traditional instruments.
Unlike a normal live performance, the ensemble plays its tracks through Ableton Live – a computer program that allows one to arrange songs and manipulate effects. “With the flexibility of the computer, you can create music with whatever means necessary,” Spice said. “From a composition perspective it opens a lot of doors.”
Third-year law student Will Porter has been working with Ableton since taking one of Spice’s classes as an undergraduate at W&L. Primarily a guitarist, Porter said that unlike traditional composition, Ableton allows one to “build a song from the ground up and mesh it with instruments a lot better.”
“Everyone is basically at square one at the beginning of the semester, which is really exciting because over 11 or 12 weeks you have to learn to create music using a new tool.”
Porter and junior Harrison Tucker worked with the ensemble last semester and said that experience gave them the ability to experiment even more this term. With a second performance under its belt, the ensemble is excited about the next show. While incorporating more advanced lighting and projection this term, Spice wants to use the “black box” Johnson Theater to provide an even more extensive electronic experience.
“Because a lot of people have experience seeing these live shows, there’s an expectation of multimedia experience,” Spice said. “And that is a lot to swallow at a small university. It takes a lot of effort to generate that level.”