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If you want to watch Michael Rhoades compose music, don’t look for him at a piano, working through the concepts of melody, harmony, and rhythm. Rhoades is much more likely to be found at his computer, punching in algorithms, mathematical paradigms, tendency masks and cellular automatons. That’s because the Sweetwater Sound systems administrator is a composer of electroacoustic music, a musical form still relatively unknown in the United States and recognizable by its emphasis on the texture of sound as it evolves through time and space over the more traditional trappings of classical and modern music.
“People often equate electroacoustic music with the kind of music you hear in horror or sci-fi films, and I think that’s because the music tends to sound otherworldly,” Rhoades says. “It’s really about pushing the boundaries of what is possible and entering another musical realm where you’re suddenly in a place you didn’t know existed.”
Rhoades composes his songs – he recently released his 14th CD – with the help of a computer program called C Sound. The program allows him to go through the process of score synthesis, and the end result is often a surprise, not only to Rhoades’ listeners but to him as well.
“I’ve been dreaming of these pieces for years. I’ve walked around, hearing them in my mind, so when I start to compose I know what much of the music is going to sound like. At the same time I try to create a situation where I can’t anticipate exactly what the outcome will be,” he says.
Electroacoustic music has been around in various incarnations for roughly 80 years, beginning with the invention of the vacuum tube. Called “acousmatic” music in Europe, the genre has its own list of giants, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse and Morton Subotnick, whose record Silver Apples of the Moon awakened Rhoades’ passion for the form in the mid 90s. Even before that, Rhoades credits a class he took at Snider High School from local trumpet legend and music educator Dick Seger with helping him enter another world where music isn’t about words and meter but exploring the depths of human consciousness.
“We had two synthesizers at the school, and Dick decided to give a couple classes on them. One was a music appreciation class, and the other was how to make electronic music. I guess it all started there, and then when I just by accident listened to Silver Apples I instantly knew what my voice was,” says Rhoades.
That voice finds expression in music driven by such complex concepts as quantum physics and the second law of thermodynamics. Rhoades freely admits that such music might not be for everyone – “You have to be ready to abandon every preconceived notion you have about what music really is,” he says – but in his hopes to expose more to its mind-expanding possibilities, he is hosting a series of free electroacoustic concerts to be held throughout the summer and fall every second Friday at 8 p.m. in Sweetwater’s state-of-the-art auditorium.
“For a long time electroacoustic music appreciation has been confined to academia, but I really want to give the public a chance to experience this kind of music. I’ve been pleasantly surprised about the response we’ve gotten so far to the concerts, and when I’ve given people my CDs I’ve gotten good feedback as well,” says Rhoades. “One man who’d had no previous exposure to electroacoustic music heard one of my CDs and called it ‘ear candy’ because there were so many sounds to take in at once. I thought that was a pretty good description.”
According to Rhoades, that ear candy will be particularly pleasing in Sweetwater’s theatre on account of its specially designed Lares speaker system. The 60-piece speaker system makes it possible for the auditorium to assume the acoustics of any venue, from those of the largest, most echo-filled cathedral, to those of a small intimate stage. It also allows the music to travel around the room and over the heads of the audience members, many of whom will most likely close their eyes the moment the music begins.
“It’s the kind of music best listened to in that mysterious state when you’re just drifting off to sleep. A lot of people basically meditate to the music, but for anyone who might find that boring, there will be a visual component to many of the concerts as well, and the graphics that people come up with to accompany the music are amazing,” Rhoades says.
So far, the concert the line-up includes the work of award-winning composer Elainie Lillios, to be performed by renowned Chicago saxophonist Steve Duke, and performances by students from the University of Iowa and Northeastern University. The New York City-based interactive computer, dance, video and music ensemble Kinesthetech Sense is also scheduled to take the stage in November, followed by the Chicago Composer’s Forum in December. And in the spring Sweetwater will play host to the Society of Electroacoustic Music in the United States’ national conference.
Jeff Green, a senior sales engineer at Sweetwater and a cellist, collaborated with Rhodes on a piece called “The Washing,” which was part of the first concert in the series. He says these musical evenings are sure to please those looking for a rare glimpse into a unique art form.
“It’s really unusual to be able to hear this kind of music outside a large city or university, and I think anyone who is open-minded in their listening habits will really enjoy this truly textured, immersive experience,” said Green.
Rhoades is confident electroacoustic music, which draws large crowds in Europe, will soon find its American audience, perhaps even starting here in Fort Wayne, a city whose residents, Rhoades believes, have deceptively sophisticated artistic tastes.
“It’s like rock music when it first started to become popular, and our parents said, ‘That’s not music. That’s just noise.’ Look what happened. People are beginning to view the world in a different way, to see with the help of quantum physics that time and space are not linear – that our view of reality is myopic, and electroacoustic music is going to be part of that revolution,” Rhoades says.