The FutureSounds Festival – an instrument builder extravaganza organized by the Cornell ReSounds Project, featuring guest builders and performers as well as newly designed instruments and compositions by Cornell students, took place May 13 at the Museum of art Herbert F. Johnson.
“The goal of the festival was for attendees to encounter the unknown, musically speaking, and to find clever ways to make sense of that encounter,” said guest speaker Ryan McCullough, DMA ’20, who co -organized the festival with Elizabeth Ogonek, assistant. professor, both in the Music Department of the College of Arts and Sciences.
The FutureSounds course, co-taught by Ogonek and McCullough, emphasized the dialogue between the past and the future by considering new music written for old and newly constructed instruments. Students developed approaches to alternative tuning systems, notation, performance practice, sound color, musical works and collaborations, expanding the existing sound world. A taste of the class projects can be viewed online.
“The fundamental premise of a class called ‘FutureSounds’ is necessarily to grapple with the question of ‘what comes next’ for music,” McCullough said. “By having our students take on virtually every musical job – composer, instrument maker, and performer/performer – we were challenging them to truly understand what makes music tick.”
“We actively designed the course and the course projects in a way that we hoped would illuminate the interdependence between listener, designer, builder, composer, performer and chamber musician,” said said Ogonek. “A particular win, in my mind, was seeing students realize that design pitfalls could actually become compositional opportunities.”
The May 13 festival featured performances on the newly created instruments by the students, as well as lectures and workshops from the guest builders.
Featured guests included Bart Hopkin, an acoustic musical instrument maker and author of numerous books on instruments and their construction; Jesse Jones, composer and multi-instrumentalist specializing in the design and construction of innovative instruments; and Cory Smythe, a pianist who has worked closely with pioneering artists in new, improvised and classical music, while making many electronic modifications to the piano. The final performer, Mark Stewart, is a multi-instrumentalist as well as a singer, songwriter, composer, improviser and instrument designer. Since 1998, he has been recording, touring and conducting music with Paul Simon.
Group improvisations were a highlight of the festival, according to organizers.
“Our students listened really carefully to each other. I’d like to think that more than anything, we were teaching a class about listening, so it felt like a real win,” McCullough said.
In addition to student performances and demonstrations during the festival, Hopkin led a free instrument-building workshop. The festival concluded with a performance by guest artists in the museum’s Appel Lobby. Jones, Hopkin, and Stewart played an improvised ensemble on instruments they had built, and Smythe played a solo piano ensemble for his signature microtonal piano setup that “always seems to melt the sound of the instrument in the way the most exquisite,” Ogonek said.
She added, “It was truly inspiring to see these world-class musicians working in these truly unusual and unknown worlds of sound and bringing the same attention, detail and energy that they would to standard repertoire. “
Cornell ReSounds aims to make Cornell a center for the design and creation of new musical instruments and a hub for creative artists at Cornell – a conversation between the future of instrument building and collaborative artistic creation. Seeing tradition and past inventions as a way forward, Cornell technologists, engineers, and instrument makers work alongside performers and composers to create a site-specific body of work for these instruments.
ReSounds is funded by a New Frontier Grant from A&S, as well as support from the Cornell Council for the Arts and a Humanities Impact Grant funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation.
Linda B. Glaser is head of news and media relations for the College of Arts and Sciences.