Composers, performers on cutting edge of electronic music gather at WMU

Contact: Erin Flynn
A man plays cello while looking at a computer screen.

Cellist Stephen Marotto plays a piece composed by Ralph Lewis. (Stephen Hennessey)

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Lines of code loop electronic melodies. Fingers fiddle with transmitters as a musician fiddles a bow. At Western Michigan University, performers and composers are blending instruments and technology to push the boundaries of traditional musical performance.

SPLICE Institute brings artists on the cutting-edge of their craft from across the country to WMU to hone their skills and learn from world-class faculty.

Dr. Christopher Biggs, associate professor of music composition and technology at WMU as well as co-founder and director of SPLICE Institute, says the institute fills a void in the field.

"Composers get very good education on acoustic instruments. There are whole classes dedicated to writing for acoustic instruments and faculty who are very well versed," says Biggs, who adds that performers receive little to no training in performing with electronics, and composers often receive minimal training in writing pieces with electronics.


A man sits in the audience of an empty theater monitoring sound levels for a band practicing on the stage.

Dr. Christopher Biggs monitors sound for performers on stage. (Stephen Hennessey)

The SPLICE Institute, which just wrapped up its fifth year on the WMU campus, is a weeklong, intensive summer program filled with workshops, master classes, collaborations and lectures.

There are also daily concerts by faculty and visiting artists as well as an opportunity for collaborating performers and composers to showcase their work.

"You might have a piece with a saxophone that has microphones on it and a computer that has live electronics doing different kinds of processing," Biggs says. "Right now, most performers would have no idea how to go about performing a piece like that. It's not part of their education. We teach performers how to get that together."

Hands connect wires on a breadboard.

A composer programs a piece by connecting wires on a breadboard. (Stephen Hennessey)

Workshops offer expert instruction on such concepts as programming with microprocessors and introductory electronics for performers. Participants connect circuits, manipulate transmitters and write code, more reminiscent of a computer engineering course than a traditional music class.

"It's great because all of the students here not only choose to be here, but they also choose their workshops," says Dr. Eli Fieldsteel, guest faculty from the University of Illinois. "So, it's almost a guaranteed interested audience, and an audience willing to challenge themselves and try something new."


A musician holds his hands over a table with instruments on it.

Alex Lough performs a piece composed by Jared Tubbs. (Stephen Hennessey)

Composers and performers also get a chance to interact with musicians of different skill levels and backgrounds.

During the latest session, Drew Smith, a composer and undergraduate student at Oberlin College, composed a piece for Jenna Michael, a professional violinist from Grand Rapids. Jared Tubbs, a master's student at WMU, collaborated with Alex Lough, a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine, on a piece that used a gyroscope to transfer data and map it to parameters that control sound effects with hand movements.

"I definitely have a lot of interest in math and science, and I like to incorporate that into my music in any way I can," Tubbs says.

For many, SPLICE Institute is a chance to be immersed in a field in which they're just beginning to scratch the surface.

"It's something I'm really passionate about," says Smith. "It's a very esoteric field to get into, but the level of exploration that's going on is really cool.

A musician holds her violin and bow as a composer on her right wearing headphones shows her something on a computer.

Violinist Jenna Michael, left, works with composer Drew Smith, right, on a piece premiering at SPLICE Institute. (Stephen Hennessey)

Since 2015, more than 250 works for live performance and electronics, including 123 world premieres, have been programmed at the institute.

SPLICE Music also organizes a professional conference called SPLICE Festival as well as SPLICE Academy, which trains high school age students to work with music technology. The organization's goal is to foster community and create connections between composers and performers interested in combining live performance with technology.

"People who can do this stuff are more marketable. They have more career opportunities, more things they can do, more jobs they can apply for," says Biggs. "Our focus is to improve craft, foster community, facilitate collaboration, and help individuals create and present contemporary music with electronics at the highest artistic level."