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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

93. Sound Studies and Reflections on My Earliest Electronic Compositions

With Paweł and University of Louisville student composers, including Simon Holden, Will Lamkin, Carter, and Zach Willman

Last night we said farewell to Paweł Siek—a Polish composer who has been studying composition at the University of Louisville this fall as an exchange student. Paweł who has shared with us experimental pieces about bugs and reversing sound waves with vacuum cleaners will be missed as he returns to Poland over the next few days. He has become a good friend, and I hope we will keep in contact despite the distance. He has brought a certain excitement and unity to our group of composers, a group which I feel more connected with than ever thanks in part to Paweł and the activities we have planned around him.

This has been a really good semester. Although I have not been in any music history seminars, I have begun research on my thesis—a project which considers timbre and harmony in the works of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho. I have also supplemented the directed study on spectral music I did last semester with a second study specific to the technologies of spectral music. My advisor in this work has been Professor John Ritz of the composition department, and he has shown me computer programs which allow me to deconstruct and analyze recorded sound as the spectralists have done since the opening of IRCAM in 1977. While my first directed study with Professor Caroline Ehman focused on the history and aesthetics of spectralism, this study has been more technical and scientific. It has opened my eyes to the fact that, as rewarding as basing a composition on the mathematic ratios of the harmonic series can be (as in my Étude Spectrale I), inharmonic sounds are infinitely more interesting. “Inharmonicity” is a term describing sounds which do not conform to the harmonic series, and, Murail had commented that these are the sounds from which he and his colleagues have based most of their compositions. I often found the technology temperamental and difficult to work with, but the essential experience and this realization have given me the insight I needed to proceed in my thesis research and at some point apply these concepts back to my own compositions too.

Analyzing sound spectra in the electronic music studio

Although I have not composed anything new since this summer when I started work on a second Étude Spectrale for four trombones, I have enjoyed reflecting on my older electronic works this fall. Specifically I have shared The Apocalypse—Movement Thirteen of my massive Opus One, Dark Organ—with the composition students after relistening to this piece on the loud speakers of the electronic music studio located in the basement of the music school. On Wednesday, November 29, I presented The Apocalypse alongside Étude Spectrale I and the Kyrie of my Organ Symphony in Composition Seminar, shocking my colleagues with this loud, screeching thirteen-minute work I had composed in high school. Most of them thoroughly enjoyed The Apocalypse, although one held his hands to his ears throughout, and soon The Apocalypse became the most talked-about piece all semester among me and my composer friends. Dark Organ was the first original music I wrote, way back in fall 2008 and spring 2009. This was before I had access to music notation and before I had taken any music theory or composition lessons. Dark Organ is in three broad sections—The Invasion, The Plague, and The Apocalypse—all of which tell of death and destruction and are reminiscent to some extent of the science fiction stories I was writing up to that point. As far as musical genre, the three sections of Dark Organ correspond to the nineteenth-century tone poem of Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, and Jean Sibelius. Totally electronic though, I call them “electronic poems,” and the three electronic poems of Dark Organ preceded other, less-uniform sets grouped as Opus Three and Opus Nine. Indeed my electronic poems have a variety of colors and textures which I have never been able to replicate in my chamber music, so that I have always thought of them as my stand-in orchestral music.

Lincoln Homestead near Springfield, KY

Last spring, a few months before moving to Louisville, I had shared these electronic poems with my friend Matt Petty and expressed interest in writing a new cycle integrating electronics and instrumental performance for he and his bandmates of Kisatchie Sound to perform. That never happened, although my mostly finished text-piece Zarzuela was intended for this cycle. Moreover the cycle was to be the first true realization of the two new directions I wrote about at that time, but now these compositional goals must wait as I dedicate myself entirely to the thesis. Following the visit of Longleash this August, I listened to the music of the saturationists inspired by that conversation with John, their cellist, and Matt Ertz. Especially in Décombres for contrabass clarinet and live electronics by saturationist composer Raphaël Cendo, I heard many of the same sounds as in The Apocalypse. His composition—from 2006—indeed only predates mine by three years. Additionally his success told me that this sort of music is acceptable and appreciated (in some circles) whereas for many years I had doubted the feasibility of The Apocalypse and my other electronic poems and instead focused entirely on instrumental music. For several years, I even felt that acoustic music was the only real proving ground for the serious composer. Now, when the time presents itself, thanks to my intensive research into spectral music and its wider aesthetic context, I feel equipped to move forward in the integration of electronic music into instrumental writing. Most likely my approach will be that of Saariaho in several of her pivotal works—the imitation of electronic sounds exclusively via instruments. In fact, the thesis, as an aesthetic study of her music and that of her predecessors, intends to detail the grammar and rhetoric set forth around their expanded timbral-harmonic vocabulary.

Fall colors at Otter Creek Recreation Area

The fall semester concludes next week, and then I fly home on Monday, December 18 for a span of three weeks. Aside from music, I have really gotten into photography lately and have often made daytrips to various destinations, taking plenty of photos along the way. Since summer I’ve enjoyed getting to know the history and geography of my new home that is Kentucky. I have discovered the Louisville Olmsted Parks as well as Bernheim Forest, the Otter Creek Recreation Area, and several of our state parks. I have also visited sites associated with Abraham Lincoln such as the Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park outside Hodgenville. I have filled each drive with music—some familiar to me but most of it brand new!

JSH 17.12.09

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College located in Natchitoches, Louisiana in May 2013 after completing his undergraduate thesis “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” As series director of the successful Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series from May 2014 to April 2016, Jackson played a vital role in the renewal of interest in chamber music across central Louisiana. This interest has encouraged the creation of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival and the new series Nachtmusik von BrainSurge, both of which Jackson remains active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. He also blogs at MusicCentral where he shares concert experiences, gives listening recommendations, posts interviews with contemporary composers, and offers insights into his own compositions. As a composer, Jackson has worked to integrate the vocabulary and grammar of modern music into pieces which are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. In fall 2016, Jackson began graduate studies in musicology at the University of Louisville where he has recently been awarded the Gerhard Herz Scholarship in recognition of his accomplishments. His current research interests include French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho. He also sings with the University of Louisville Chorus and participates in the School of Music Composition Seminar. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at


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