May 10 at SoundWaves: Trombonist Mark Hetzler brings the “electric aesthetic” to his music

Mark Hetzler, XXX and Vince Fuh, three of four members in "Sinister Resonce,' at a gig in St. Paul in April.
Mark Hetzler, composer Mark Engebretson, and Vince Fuh, at a St. Paul gig in April.

UW-Madison trombone professor Mark Hetzler describes himself as a “bit of a geek,” which may help to explain he’s more often now found onstage with laptops, guitar pedals, a mixing board and surround sound instead of a symphony orchestra.

He’s done that, too, of course, having served for a time as the principal trombonist of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra as well as playing with other orchestras around the country. He was a fellow at the New World Symphony and Tanglewood and for 14 years was one-fifth of the internationally-known Empire Brass Quintet. He still is the trombonist in the Wisconsin Brass Quintet, which just celebrated its 40th year (and, while not quite ready to bring laptops on stage, still plays some pretty cool new music).

But somehow he got from there to here, where “here” is “Sinister Resonance,” an experimental ensemble offering an amalgam of musical genres mixed with electronics. Sinister Resonance performed in St. Paul and Madison clubs last month and will finish out the semester with a few pieces at the upcoming “SoundWaves” presentation on May 10, at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. (See previous blog post for info on SoundWaves.) Mark will also speak for ten minutes on “The Electric Aesthetic,” about how he incorporates electronic technology into his music.

Mark Hetzler
Mark Hetzler

Last year, Mark received an H. I. Romnes Faculty Fellowship from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, an unrestricted grant awarded to newly tenured faculty members who show “exceptional promise.” The grant has allowed him to expand his experimental efforts exponentially: to commission composers, buy sophisticated technology, record and perform all over the country, and compose new pieces himself. Mark recently answered a few questions about this style of music and why it appeals to him.

When did you first become interested in electro-acoustic music?

I became interested in this music when I was a sophomore in college- I was exploring in the library and discovered recordings of computer music from the 1950’s and 60’s.  At that time I didn’t have a computer, there was no internet and the means of making “electronic” music for me was simply playing along with a tape (a reel to reel tape back then- today we use sound files in a variety of digital formats).

One of the first electronic pieces I discovered was “Deserts,” by Edgar Varese. I was making my way through Varese’s music and was floored by Deserts.  I was struck by the concept of pre-recorded sounds being inserted into the sonic fabric of live players- this music really opened my ears up. I then came across a composition by Roger Reynolds titled “From Behind the Unreasoning Mask.” This piece was for 4-channel tape (surround sound), trombone and two percussionists. When I purchased the score, the publisher sent me a 4-channel reel to reel tape. I had no machine on which to play it and had to take it to a studio in Boston (where I was going to school at the time) and have an engineer convert it into another format. It’s kind of hilarious in a way, because when I left that studio, my new tape was now playable on a machine that would be obsolete within 2-3 years.

What do you like about this kind of music; what inspires you?  Are there any particular musicians whom you admire?

I’m a bit of a geek, so I’ll admit that I like the complexity of it. I like the fact that pieces I work on these days tend to require an enormous amount of preparation and technological involvement- from getting specific pieces of equipment to link and talk to each other, to software patches that need to be learned and tweaked. This music requires a level of focus and brain power that I find intellectually stimulating. Of course, I also marvel at the many ways one can express themselves with this kind of music. If I am working to shape a phrase, color my tone on the trombone or create a musical state that is either calm or excited, I find that technology can help me to get into places that are quite unexpected with regard to sound, intellect and emotion. I love making acoustic music- the feel of it and the sound of it. My approach when using technology is the same, but with digital and analog tools I feel like my musical reach multiplies- that is hard not to like.

There is nothing like spending ten to twelve hours in a studio working with sound. I love that time- it goes by WAY too fast. If I’m working on a new piece or trying to get just the right sound with my gear, or even improvising and working out a musical idea with an effects processor, I am in heaven.

Who are your musico-technological heroes?

Pat Metheny, David Tom, Nels Cline, Javier Alvarez, Terrence Blanchard–too many folks to mention all of them.

What logistics are involved in setting up for a concert?

Imagine a ton of wires and all kinds of equipment running together, machines depending on each other. It can take me up to two hours to set it up sometimes, so my pre-concert vibe can become anxious, but that is part of the thrill of this music. The logistics don’t stop there- I usually have a host of things to remember in concert as well (beyond just playing the trombone)- which fader to raise or lower, which program to turn on, which microphone to open, which effect to turn on or off. Playing this kind of music is like doing a complicated dance, in many ways similar to what percussionists do all the time.

Sinister Resonance is comprised of Mark Hetzler (trombone and electronics), Vincent Fuh (piano), Nick Moran (doublebass) and Todd Hammes (drums/percussion). On May 10, 7 p.m. at SoundWaves, in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, the four will present a program of novel music that will follow a series of short talks on the theme of tools. Mark’s tools? By now, we know.

On the program:
“They Said…” by Mark Engebretson, professor of composition at UNC-Greensboro.
“Mark composed a powerful work that uses spoken word and interactive computer technology.  The piece is based on a poem that was inspired by the Abu Ghraib atrocities.”

“Murmuration,” composed by Mark Hetzler. This piece uses an 8-channel pre-recorded sound file, creating by playing the trombone through effects units.  The musicians improvise with each other and the surround-sound recorded part.  This work was inspired by the spontaneous formations of starlings, known as murmurations.

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One thought on “May 10 at SoundWaves: Trombonist Mark Hetzler brings the “electric aesthetic” to his music”

  1. Come to SoundWaves this Friday, May 10! Mark is going to be brilliant, as are the other speakers. He is performing in octophonic surround sound in a round room – it’s going to be a sound like you’ve never heard before (in a good way!). The event is at 7PM in WID, and it is absolutely free.

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