Music is an integral part of daily life at both Oberlin College and Oberlin Conservatory. Whether you’re jamming in the lounge of your dormitory, practicing away at the conservatory, or listening to organ music at midnight in Finney Chapel, it is hard for you to escape the omnipresence of music at Oberlin. Although there are a plethora of ways to approach the process surrounding the sonorities at Oberlin, our research focuses on three aspects that we found to be fundamental to music making: practice, improvisation, and performance. These three manifestations of music encompass musical sounds produced by the spectrum of people at Oberlin: from the world renowned professors and conservatory students, who practice multiple hours a day and give monumental recital performances, to the jazz musicians shedding alone and together, and even to the guy down your hall singing in the shower.
No matter where you stand in any of the three main Oberlin Conservatory buildings, if you listen very closely, you can hear someone practicing. Our field recordings explore how the architecture and ambience of rehearsal spaces at Oberlin influence and are influenced by the music they house. These cellular, isolated rooms are the places in which musicians of all genres refine their sounds and prepare for performances in much larger, public spaces. We were interested in how the size and configuration of these rooms made them more conducive to practicing and less suitable for performance.
As one of the most spontaneous aspects of music, improvisation is found everywhere in the world and is especially common in a place as musically charged as Oberlin College.The Cat in the Cream cafe, a dormitory lounge, or the middle of Tappan Square are just some of the places that one can find improvised music on the campus of Oberlin. In this part of the exhibit, we listen to recordings of different instruments at different places, such as a person scat singing in a dorm room, to see how improvisation manifests throughout Oberlin.
Performances are the most visible parts of music on Oberlin’s campus. Through many hours of practice and preparation ensembles at Oberlin consistently perform exciting concerts for the community. There is a wide variety of settings and styles in which performances can take place. Be it sitting in the front row at a formal piano duo recital in Warner Concert Hall, or lying on stage with over a hundred other students in an amorphous blob at a spooky “Organ Pump” at midnight on Halloween in Finney Chapel, profound performances are abound at Oberlin, no matter how late.
On a college campus that houses one of the finest conservatories and some of the most creative and spontaneous students in the country, the three aspects of music which we explored are apparent in everyday life. Practice, improvisation and performance are as regular to most Oberlin students as breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Through our recordings, we hope that the attentive listener will be able to take a aural glimpse of the musical soundscapes of Oberlin.
In this recording we hear the sounds of at least four Oberlin Conservatory classical musicians practicing in individual practice rooms on the second floor of Robertson Hall. Unlike most university practice rooms which are usually housed in the basement of the music department building, Robertson was designed with the needs of musicians in mind. Each practice room in the three-story building comes equipped with a Steinway piano and a window that looks out upon a common courtyard. The Steinway’s allow all musicians in the conservatory, not just pianists, to visualize complicated melodies and harmonies in their repertoire on high-quality pianos. The windows help musician’s maintain motivation during practice through the presence of sunlight and the visual confirmation that others are practicing intently just across the courtyard. Here, we see the ideas of the architect intertwine with the needs of the musician to produce a space that is conducive to productive practicing.
In this recording we hear the sounds of three Oberlin Conservatory jazz students practicing in individual practice rooms on the second floor of the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building. As heard from the hallway, the fusion of saxophone, piano, and trumpet intertwine into an unintentional trio which, to the blind listener, could be interpreted as an intentional collaboration due to the improvisatory nature of jazz. Although each of these musicians are practicing completely unrelated scales or pieces from the repertoire, our modern idea of “jazz” could still encompass the swath of sound they produce in the hallway. However, were a jazz musician of the 1920’s to wander into the spaceshipesque hallway of the Kohl building, they would immediately register the noises the heard as “practicing” and not as “some new hip kind of jazz”. Here, we see the ideas of practice and performance become blurred together by the evolution of the jazz musician’s approach to improvisation.
In this recording we hear the sounds of a group of Oberlin Conservatory vocal performance majors rehearsing together in a chamber ensemble practice room on the second floor of Bibbins Hall. As heard from hallway, the sounds of the interlocking vocal lines can be made out clearly, but the phonics of the lyrics seem to be trapped within the practice room. This phenomenon is due to the fact that the acoustical information that allows human listeners to distinguish between phonic sounds is encoded in the upper partials of that sound, which are far more easily dampened than the fundamental pitch being sung. For this very reason, one of the most difficult and most practiced aspects of vocal performance is the clear annunciation of lyrics, especially in choral music with overlapping vocal lines. Here, we hear a group of highly trained vocalists seemingly fall flat on their pronunciation capabilities due to our position in space as a listener.
A form of singing that had its roots in West African music, scat singing, or scat, is a form of singing when the singer uses nonsense words in solo vocal improvisations. Although it potentially dates back prior to the 1900’s, the singing style was made popular by Louis Armstrong in 1927 and onwards. Although first used in Jazz and Blues, scat singing has been adapted for many different genres since its popularization and does not always have to be improvised. In this particular recording that took place in a dorm room, the singer used scat singing when she was prompted to improvise a short melody. She first started by singing an octave then sang descending the scale with slight variations in between. To ensure improvisation, the singer was prompted only seconds before the recording occurred to give her as little time as possible to remember a pre-learned melody.
This performance was recorded inside Oberlin’s Warner Concert Hall during a faculty chamber music concert. Traditional classical music repertoire is highly valued within the conservatory and larger community. The pianists bring Gershwin’s composition to life during their recital, recreating a soundscape that has historically entertained a multitude of listeners. The sound is crisp and precise. It is evident from the recording that both performers have a high regard for accuracy and synchronization. The level of virtuosic ability shared between the two performers is an example of what many conservatory students aspire to reach. In this musical space the audience sits organized in tens of dark rows all focused on the well-illuminated stage. The setting clearly distinguishes the two sides of the performance from each other. Forcing the audience to forget about themselves, and to get lost in the music.
This performance by the Jared Hochberg Quartet was recorded during Jazz Forum inside the Cat In the Cream Coffeehouse. Jazz Forum is a weekly event in which different student combos perform in front of a tightly packed audience inside the bustling coffeehouse. This artistic space acts as a medium in which the performers can sonically explore new places together with an audience. From start to finish, the bass, piano, drums, and saxophone create different layers and textures within the piece to create a story unique to their own quartet. The ultimate phrase of this piece ends with everybody playing the same musical figure, and then abruptly ending. Through all the twists and turns of the complex rhythms and melodies in this song, the quartet remains synchronized with each other. The music from the quartet transforms what was a normal coffeehouse into a musical laboratory in which ideas are constantly being born.
This excerpt was recorded on Halloween at midnight during a Halloween organ music concert in a large chapel. An organ creates its sound through transporting large amounts of air through large cylindrical metal tubes that can be over thirty feet tall. The history of the pipe organ has been traced as far back as third century BC. The instrument became a significant part of church music. During prayers, often the churchgoers would sing while being accompanied by the organ. Although the space in which the Organ Pump was recorded was a chapel, the purpose of the organ has transformed itself. In this setting a group of over one hundred college kids are sitting together laughing, listening, and loving the vibrations created by the spooky organ music on Halloween night. Although this was not a religious event, the music performed by the organist still acted as a medium in which the listeners could connect to each other and feel the same vibrations from the organ pipes at the same time. It is interesting how the same space and sounds can create a completely different experience for the audience depending on the circumstances of the environments.