August 11, 1994 * Vol. 4, No. 16
by Jason Schneider
Hearing electronic music for the first time, one is inclined to believe that it is art for the sake of "newness" rather than for the sake of honest self-expressionthat someone is very consciously trying to break the chains of tradition.
But Kenneth Jacobs, a Knoxville composer of electronic music, swears that this isn't the case with his work: "I don't strive for novelty, I strive for being myself ... If you're being true to your own vision, your art cannot ever be like anybody else's anyway. This concept of repeating or copying is irrelevant."
Electronic music is made up of purely synthetic sounds, and has been an accepted form of art since the late 1940s. While much modern pop music uses synthetic sounds, and virtually 95 percent of movie scores are computer imitations of orchestras, the type of electronic music Jacobs composes is different. His intent is not to imitate acoustic instruments, but, rather, to create completely new timbres.
Some of the sounds are reminiscent of traditional instrumentsviolins, harps, or glockenspielsbut many seem as though they could have come only from alien space ships, or government computers gone mad. "Composers have long wanted to expand the palette of colors available to them, and this is an ideal opportunity," says Jacobs.
So far, the type of electronic music Jacobs composes has remained mostly in academic circlesa fact he attributes to the general public's unwillingness to accept the synthetic sounds. "The general public tends to be rather conservative in its tastes. The public would have to be repeatedly exposed to these sounds in a commercial environment before they would begin to be accepted as musical material," he says.
Jacobs, who is also a UT professor of music, creates his sounds on digital synthesizers, then sequences them together on a Macintosh computer and finally transfers them onto Digital Audio Tape. Entire pieces can be realized while sitting behind a desk of equipment in the corner of the basementbecause, with electronic music, it is the recording itself which is the final product, not the performance.
Jacobs also composes "electro-acoustic" music, which brings together synthetic sounds and acoustic instruments. These pieces are much like traditional concertoswith the electronic sounds taking the role of the orchestra. "I've long been fascinated by the interplay between the frozen tape sounds and the interaction of the live performer. How do we deal with something that is seemingly rigid and inflexible?"
These electro-acoustic compositions bring out the strongest qualities of both mediums. There is the new and exciting sonic quality of the electronic soundsbell-like tones bouncing from speaker to speaker, mounting layers of lush chords, pounding bass notes that shake the wallsand, at the same time, there is the emotional sensitivity that can only be provided by a human performer.
Currently, Jacobs is composing only acoustic musicthe medium he began working in over 25 years ago. "When I started combining the electronic and the acoustic, I started getting more involved with performers, which brought me back into the world of instrumental music. Because of that, the demand for my acoustic writing has started to grow."
Jacobs is composing a violin concerto for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster, Marc Zelmanovitch, and an orchestral piece for the University of Tennessee's bicentennial celebration. He is also completing his fifth CD, Sandcastles, which will feature acoustic and electro-acoustic performances by members of the KSO and the UT music faculty, and will be released by the middle of September.
It seems notable that after two decades of dedication to electronic musicincluding the building of UT's electronic sound studioJacobs has returned to acoustic composition. Does this somehow reveal the fate of electronic music as a whole? Will it be only a passing, underground art form, which is ultimately overcome by more traditional types of music?
"The way the world is now, it's not getting out there, even though a lot of people are doing it," says Jacobs. "Because of the computer technology, people can do this in their own homeslike I do. You no longer have to have a university studio, or anything else. Practically every block has got some teenager who's got a lot of this equipment. But is it just for your own personal amusement, or are you trying to make a serious product? I think we're in a state of development. It could go in a lot of different directions."
© Metro Pulse