Many sounds we hear in everyday life are no longer created the way they used to be. When the train pulls up to pick up the rush hour workers, it’s not an actual bell that we’re hearing. Right when the kicker’s foot hits the football, there’s a man in a booth who triggers the sound so the viewers feel like they’re at the game. Even a smartphone on vibrate generates a light tone to bolster its range. Whether society is ready to accept it or not, electronic tones are all around us.
Jerome Fund is supporting the exploration of electroacoustic music, and Samuel Wells has premiered some amazing work because of it. But it’s important to know that the human element in the music remains paramount: “I like using electronics, but ultimately I don’t care if they’re involved or not. I really like music that involves humans, and that’s the main thing,” Wells says. Human beings don’t have to jettison artistry simply because technology is advancing. No matter how left-brained and motorik a piece of music is made to be, there will always be a slight itch of emotion.
Wells understands the possibilities of technology, and is eager to include it in his work. To wit, the JFund-commissioned “The Lacuna” tackles an entire life’s story in 35 succinct minutes. Inspired by author Barbara Kingsolver’s novel of the same name, the piece takes on the daunting task of representing a life recorded only by journal entries and stenographer notes. The subject, Harrison Shepherd, is a Mexican-American citizen whose life flows between both countries throughout world wars, revolutions, and artistic movements.
Wells’ piece and Kingsolver’s novel don’t follow a strictly linear tale. Gaps in Shepherd’s life that weren’t written down are gone with the turn of a page. “You’re reading this first-person account, but then he doesn’t write for ten years so you have to fill in the space on your own,” Wells explains. In a flawlessly executed set of empty space, triggered electronics, and four hands playing a piano, Wells manages to convey the complexities of life in a lived-in world. As Shepherd goes through major changes, the music itself resets and takes on new forms.
Most distinct in the performance, as played by Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff, is Wells’ knack for making the silence between movements count. Like the unrecorded gaps in Shepherd’s life, there are endless ideas about what those spaces, or lacunas, might mean for the overall story arc. One section employs swampy electronics over minimalist chords. The next sees Gibson and Kotcheff playing simultaneous avant jazz licks. Before you know it, 10 minutes have passed, and you’ll find the players having a lovely call-and-response conversation to their electronic counterpart. Similar to reading the novel, you wonder how the piece, or life, has gotten to this point, and can’t tear your senses away before finding out what comes next.
Compartmentalizing the sections of the piece was a very intentional process. Wells’ score contains distinct scenes of musical dialogue, and each has a lacuna at its beginning. “There are nine sound files that I trigger and the rest are live processing,” Wells says. The electronic parts that aren’t triggered rack up to 56 different tones that the players morph around. Shepherd’s life is beautiful like a piano, but the complexities of war and politics, or in this case, electronics, continue to change his circumstances. In terms of describing a life without words, Wells’ piece is without comparison.
“We have all this technology so we should be making art with it. It’s part of our lives,” he explains about his chosen genre. As it were, these artistic pursuits are only a fraction of how Wells spends his time. “A lot of my career is dominated by this dichotomy of trying to be a trumpet player versus being a composer.” Trumpet is the instrument where Wells makes his money, so to speak, while composing for electronics, various media, and classical instruments is the flipside of his work. “Two days each week I teach adjunct. I give lessons here and there. There are days where I’m in 12 places, and days where I don’t leave my apartment.”
It’s in this way that Wells is more than just a representative of a generation of younger composers whose compositions draw on electronics. He’s actively using his time to push the mediums forward. It’s no secret that many Gen-Xers and millennials dabble in artistic side-careers, but few do so in ways that are so thought-provoking. He could have taken a more conventional path, performing on and composing for trumpet, but he instead supplements that with a boundary-pushing line of work in electroacoustic music. Splice, a weeklong forum for composers, takes up another huge piece of Wells’ time, and in turn provides a place where similar-minded composers can share and further ideas together.
Then an opportunity like JFund comes along, and Wells is able to place his passions center stage. “It’s a big breakthrough for me. I had talked to people about doing ‘The Lacuna,’ but I had no idea how I would find the time. With the JFund base I could afford to carve out the time to dedicate to the project. I had never written anything longer than 10 minutes, so I was pretty freaked out about writing a longer piece.”
It’s this fact that is truly flabbergasting about his work, considering how he handles the longform composition on “The Lacuna” with such grace. The marriage of JFund’s resources and Wells’ ingenuity isn’t likely one you’d have found fifty years ago in classical music. But its reverence for technology, and the overall refusal to remove the human element not only represents a stronger artistic medium but actively pushes it forward.