Students explore computer music with new Music Library synthesizers

by Jennifer L. Williams

Students in Christopher DeLaurenti's summer Introduction to Computer Musics and Electroacoustics class explored instruments new to the Music Library. Photo by Stephen Salpukas

Loud electronic music blasting through a William & Mary library is just about as incongruous as it gets, but there it was on a Tuesday morning in Ewell Hall.

Students were experimenting with various synthesizers available in the Music Library as part of Christopher DeLaurenti’s summer Introduction to Computer Music and Electroacoustics class.

DeLaurenti, senior lecturer of sound and music, encouraged experimentation and play as 10 students explored several available synthesizers, which are electronic keyboards, plus Little Bits kits that are assembled into mini-synthesizers using magnets. The Music Library recently acquired several new instruments that are available for checkout by students, faculty and staff.

The class started with DeLaurenti discussing the characteristics of waveforms and how to connect them to the fundamentals of synthesis, along with a brief history of the synthesizer. Students listened to a couple of dub mixes, which are remixes of previously existing songs with added effects, that their classmates had made while DeLaurenti typed comments and questions on the classroom screen for them to read.

“We must listen as scavengers,” he said, emphasizing that every sound found or created can be recorded and used in some way.

In the Music Library, DeLaurenti gave a demonstration of the Moog synthesizer, explaining that everything is labeled and showing what the different control knobs do.

Students then paired off and were given 10 minutes to come up with an interesting sound to play for the group. Each had headphones on, and there was much tapping of keys.

“Move the knobs around; find out what they do,” DeLaurenti said, headphones around his neck and wires coiled around his wrist. “Find a cool sound.”

As he and his students tried inserting various cables into the synthesizers, he made a point that making a mistake or something not working is great because that’s how they’d learn and discover how the instruments work.

“What’s this (knob) do?” he said. “Keep working on it. Keep making something.”

A pair of students demonstrated their work on the Moog Theremini synthesizer, waving their hands over it to change the sound. They were followed by several classmates playing the unique sounds they had produced.

Students rotated to other synthesizers, and some used the Little Bits kits to build their own and start producing emanations. Christopher DeLaurenti and Arts Librarian Kathleen DeLaurenti circulated to help them and record clips for their use on an upcoming project for the class.

There were chirps, buzzing beeps and some very loud, intermittent screeches.

“There are many types and varieties of synthesizer here for students to explore,” Christopher DeLaurenti said. “So if there’s one that doesn’t suit them in terms of the sound or the layout of the various controls, there’s another one they can check out and explore.

“So that’s really exciting and extraordinary to have.”

The synthesizers are a new addition to the Music Library, and can be borrowed by anybody who is eligible to check out equipment from W&M Libraries. They are among the lesser-known things available at the Music Library, which include sound equipment, video cameras and portable record players, Kathleen DeLaurenti said.

She, Christopher DeLaurenti and Assistant Professor David Dominique spurred the effort and decided on the initial set of instruments to acquire.

“We’re certainly interested in growing it,” Kathleen DeLaurenti said. “There’s this great Netflix documentary called ‘I Dream of Wires.’ And it talks about the early analog synthesizers that were these giant wall units. And they’re starting to make those again.

“We are thinking about what would it look like if we had a really big modular synth that lived in the library that students could come in here and play with.

“We’re very excited to be able to support not only music research, but music making in the libraries.”