ASU's seventh annual contemporary music festival will focus on the beauty of noise

Over the course of three concerts, the festival will explore unconventional sounds and redesigned instruments

Is noise music? This question will be put to the test in a performance by an assortment of innovators, guest artists, a laptop orchestra and an ASU ensemble that uses instruments in quite the unconventional way.

Showcased in the three-day event starting Friday Nov. 18 at Katzin Concert Hall, PRISMS Contemporary Music Festival-Noise Spectra challenges traditional music and instruments.

The three organizers of this event: Simone Mancuso, the conductor; Garth Paine, a composer and associate professor; and Sabine Feisst, a musicology professor, will come together to create a concert that is anything but traditional.

Feisst said that when the three of them discussed the upcoming concert at the end of the last academic year, they decided they wanted to explore noise.

“'Noise is a strange word, and it very often is used in a negative way, and people would use it to express their dislike of music,” she said. “In the 20th century, there were interdisciplinary artists who said we should start listening to our environment or industrial sounds and appreciate them because they can actually become musical ingredients.”

According to Feisst, one of these interdisciplinary artists was Luigi Russolo, whose work will be exhibited in this festival.

“He designed noise intoners, or Intonarumori, and we will actually exhibit recreations of these noise intoners in the lobby of The School of Music,” Feisst said. “Russolo wasn’t interested in violins or flutes, but he wanted to produce noise and these noise intoners are machines that would roar and produce quirky sounds.”

Noise intoners were once destroyed after World War Two, but a group in the Phoenix area, Urban Stew, has rebuilt these instruments and digitally updated them.

“They can be performed by kids, non-musicians and people can just come before the concert and play around with them and create noise,” Feisst said. “Some would say that music needs a melody, but others would argue you can shape sound in other ways and can have full-fledged pieces that use percussion instruments.”

Feisst also said during the second night of this concert, the audience will hear from a group called Dirty Electronics and The ASU Laptop Orchestra.

Dirty Electronics is led by John Richards, an artist from England, and uses ordinary items that eventually become vital instruments in their performance.

“They use everyday items such as brushes, build small electronics, create sound sources with these materials, and then these become the instruments with which they will improvise and play a concert,” Feisst said.

Not only are new instruments being created during this festival, but the way in which traditional instruments are being used will surprise the audience.

“There’s one piece on the program where you open the lid (of the piano) and use just your fingernail to go over the keyboard, and it creates a percussive effect,” Feisst said. “It may really shock people to hear the instrument used in this way, but noise can be concocted from traditional musical instruments, it just depends on how many pitches you play at the same time or what happens with the overtone spectrum of a pitch.”

On the final day of this contemporary extravaganza, the student group called Arizona Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), will explore new boundaries with their instruments.

Feisst said this group is especially open-minded and requires the highest caliber of performers to create their work.

Kristi Hanno is one of these performers, a graduate student who plays the clarinet in the ACME. This was her first year partaking in the music festival.

Hanno said her piece of approximately eight and a half minutes is definitely no Mozart, but gets her outside the traditional box of music.

“A lot of it is metered, yet there’s some places where we rely on reacting to what other people are doing, so if I hear the flute doing her line, then I will do my line immediately after,” Hanno said. “People should expect non-traditional sounds and the painting of all these different sounds in composer’s packages.”

Karen Nguyen is another graduate student who will play the piano in the final night of PRISMS. This is her third year with ACME, and she said she has adjusted to playing her instrument differently for this concert.

“Instead of your traditional tonal music where you can identify the melody, you observe the space and the sounds rather than traditional phrases,” Nguyen said. “This year specifically, the piece that I’m working on requires two pianists and a bassist, and one of the pianists is playing inside the piano and pressing on the strings while I am sitting at the keyboard and playing the notes that are written.”

As someone who has grown up playing traditional piano repertoire, Nguyen said it’s important to understand contemporary music as well.

“It’s important to perform newer music, especially written by living composers, so people can have more exposure to what is being written now rather than be restricted and limited by classical repertoire,” she said. “It should be all inclusive.”

This event has three concerts. Noise Spectra 1 is held Nov 18 from 7:30 - 9:30 p.m. and is $9 general admission, but $5 for students. Noise Spectra concert 2 is held on Nov 19 at the same time and price. Noise Spectra concert 3 is held on Nov 20 from 12 - 3 p.m. and is free.

Reach the reporter at or follow @karismasandoval onTwitter.

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