Chico News & Review

Sound of Something New - Professor David Dvorin Pushes the Musical Envelope

An odd-looking machine sits in David Dvorin’s second-floor office in Chico State’s Performing Arts Center. Every so often, he’ll take a break from work and switch it on, usually causing his colleagues to peek through his open door and see what’s making such crazy noises.

Inside are several synthesizer modules mounted together. With a bunch of blinking lights and a confusing web of criss-crossed cords, they look like something that would be in the cockpit of a spaceship. He manipulates the synth sounds by tweaking various knobs and rerouting the cords to create new connections, producing bizarre video-game bleeps, high-pitched squeals and fat-sounding oscillations.

Dvorin is something of an aficionado of outlandish sounds. In his former career as an independent composer and now, as a longtime composition/electronic music professor in Chico State’s Music and Theatre Department, he’s always experimented with music’s parameters and encouraged his students do the same. He emphasizes that innovation is a matter of reimagining what’s old, combining unusual elements and pushing stuff until it breaks.

As he told the CN&R during a recent interview, each and every aspect of musical composition is fair game to screw around with.

“My own personal belief is that you shouldn’t be weird for the sake of being weird,” Dvorin said. “But frequently, when we get closer to true expression of us as individuals, we don’t quite fit in—and oftentimes that’s what happens with music. It’s really about encouraging students to find their own voices.”

Each spring, those students’ voices are showcased during the university’s annual New Music Symposium, which honors the late Alfred Loeffler, a former composer and music professor at the university. The two-day event kicks off this year on Thursday, March 1, and will include jazz, electronic and chamber music performances by student composers as well as a concert by radical bassoonist Paul Hanson the next day (see info box on page 21).

“It’s really about celebrating music that’s being written now. ‘New music’ is a weird term, but in the classical world, there is a strong emphasis on old music we’ve had for hundreds and hundreds of years,” Dvorin said. “It’s great to program Mozart and Beethoven; they are incredible composers. But they don’t represent the current moods and aesthetics of how music should be. If you extend their tradition into the modern era, there are composers doing the same thing—reflecting what’s going on around them in their environment and culture.”

As art projects, the student compositions can be extremely abstract and experimental, but they also usually incorporate more-or-less traditional elements of rock, electronic and jazz. And though there may be improvisational moments, the emphasis is on structure.

“Improvisation is all in real time, and you don’t often have the opportunity to revisit it and perfect it and sculpt it,” he said. “Composition allows you to do that. You can get much deeper and intricate constructions that way.”

Like many people, Dvorin was introduced to music through his parents, who took him to rock concerts and classical performances at a young age. “I was always interested in improvisation as a kid,” he recalled, “always hammering out stuff on the piano.” He started playing guitar at 8 years old and then progressed the same way many of his students do—playing in bands and then deciding he wanted to pursue music as a career. He studied music as an undergrad at UCLA and as a graduate student at California Institute of the Arts, where he was “exposed to all sorts of weird stuff.”

Over the years, he’s learned plenty of lessons, including the difference between composers and songwriters. Both may have high artistic intent, he explained, but composers are distinct because they give equal consideration to all of music’s parameters—time, pitch, timbre, texture and form.

“Those parameters are all up for grabs and are often reinvented for each and every piece, but songwriting in the pop world and the commercial world frequently deals with only one or two of those parameters,” he said. “You could also say that two different streams of music-making have been around for forever: There are musicians who are around to perform and entertain ... and there are musicians who are working on music specifically for listening.”

When it comes to making something original, Dvorin’s students often feel like everything’s already been done and get discouraged. He remembers feeling that way as a young musician, too: “How do you make a mark when people have gone so far in all different directions? You see extremes in all forms of art. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized it’s all about expressing yourself.

“What I have to say is uniquely me ... and there’s freedom in that,” he continued. “It’s wonderful to feel like you can allow yourself to be weird.”

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James Emery

"I really like it (Left Open CD) very much. It's well-written, well performed and well recorded. In other words, the complete package! Your guitar sounds great and I love your phrasing and tastefulness."

Chico News & Review

"Sitting in chairs on the floor in front of the auditorium’s stage on opposite sides of a dark wooden end table, with Dvorin’s three sparkling acoustic guitars behind them on stands and only a single, antique fringe-shaded lamp for décor, gave the presentation a sense of intimacy and focus. Beginning with Seda’s plucked violin in close interplay with Dvorin’s picked guitar notes, opening number “Sucker Punch” established the duo’s credibility as masters of both technical skill and emotive musicality. The music moved gracefully from jazzy, rapid-fire interaction to delicate unified themes evocative of pastoral or elegiac classical music. I particularly enjoyed “Switchback,” a piece featuring gnarly buzzing guitar notes counterpointed by swirling violin, which Dvorin described as “one of our weirder ones,” and Seda’s “Emil,” a short piece with ebulliently conversational interplay between the instruments."

Mark Dresser

"The CD ["With{In}communicado"] really works as one flowing whole. I'm enjoying it more with each listening. This is rare. Bravo on a rigorous and thoughtful work."

Allmusic.com

"With(In)communicado gathers works composed and recorded by guitarist David Dvorin from 1996 to 1998. The title-piece is actually as six-part suite scattered through the album. Its short movements all use telephone sounds (messages left on answering machines, automated messages, beeps, tones, hang-ups) paired with guitar and samples. One of the most effective parts is "Breakdown" with its twangy guitar line blended with message excerpts ("My machine doesn't talk to me"). The other works presented here range from solo and untreated guitar (acoustic) pieces ("Beams and Struts," "Left Open") to more developed compositions like the Frank Pahl-sounding "Swelled Head" or the beautiful "Jesart (3 in 1)," a programmatic piece dealing with the relation between art and religion, where the guitar is masqueraded as a church organ. The only piece failing to attract serious interest is "Calendar," an improvised guitar (electric) solo recorded 15 seconds at a time over a 30-day period: interesting concept, inconclusive result. Apart from this piece, With(In)communicado has a lot of daring and finely executed music to offer."

SonoLoco

The answering machine beeps, the telephone rings, the operator’s voice blends in, then more operators tell you to dial again, and suddenly you get the feeling of “On the Beach”, that 1960’s movie dealing with the crew on a sub who turned out to be the sole survivors after a nuclear war. They hear some beeping sounds, but that is discovered to be an automatic transmission, no live humans involved.

There are six tracks spread out across this CD called "With(In)communicado", numbered #1 to #6, which all draw their sounds from the answering machine of David Dvorin during September 1996. This is a nice, though not untraveled, path, and Dvorin utilizes the sonic pollution of every man’s gizmos well, giving it a new context, a new meaning, much in the way that artists like Andy Warhol and his followers put everyday commonplace products on display in the art galleries, or the way Marcel Duchamp used “ready-mades”. You would think that this concept be out-dated by now, but no, it works fine here. Every third or so decade older styles pop up again too, in partly new contexts, as technology evolves. The concept of success in these domains always lye in the compositional skill of the composer. This is very important. Just because you have a Macintosh G4 with twin processors at your hand, you’re not an electroacoustic wizard. We see to many examples of this; people mistaking the pen for the novel. In this case, though, I think it works quite good, even though I, from years and years of listening to electroacoustics and modern music, get a little demanding as to the results of the experimentation.

Between these gizmo tales Dvorin puts other musical pieces, duly altered, electronically - except for some purely acoustical tracks that remain pristine and untouched. Track #2, for example – “Swelled Head” – uses backward-recorded harmonies from a bowed psaltery with looping electric guitar fragments. The psaltery was prepared with objects like paper clips etcetera.

Track #7 - "Rain" - at first reminds me a lot of Brian Eno's "Discreet Music".

On the whole this is a nice example of the workings of an experimental American composer of today.

All About Jazz

Along with folks such as Ernesto Diaz-Infante and a few others, guitarist/composer/educator David Dvorin is among the recent wave of Northern California-based – new music – artisans who often mold contemporary classical elements with folksy themes, free improvisation and digital electronics. And in his own words, Dvorin’s With(in)Communicado is inspired by notions that...”deals with the breaking down of transmission systems and social communication in an era of proliferating hi-tech communication devices”.

Here, Dvorin’s topical and relevant musings are partially conveyed via some of his recorded answering machine messages and while the telephone shtick does not represent anything totally novel, the artist electronically manipulates many of the messages that serve as conceptual launching pads for these compositions. Dvorin renders ethereal soundscapes performed on acoustic and electric guitar along with loops, EFX and keyboards as he frequently generates jagged musical statements often utilized for altering or subsidizing the grand scheme of things. Additionally, Dvorin explores ambient and at times, mood enhancing motifs amid spacious guitar lines, subtle treatments and strong doses of imagery, which is most prominent on his composition titled “Rain”, where he hammers his guitar strings to mimic the implied sounds of rain drops touching the earth. Yet on “Calendar”, Dvorin indulges in some Derek Bailey-style guitar picking. Overall, With(In)Communicado is a curiously interesting and rather ambitious project. A recording, that is noticeably adorned by the contemporary subject matter.

Splendid E-Zine

I like it when a CD as a whole has a form, as if there were some sort of meta-piece that exists underneath or alongside the individual songs or compositions.

With(In)communicado has 14 tracks, but six of them are movements of a larger work ("With(In)communicado #1-6"), and they are spread across the CD like fence posts. Each of the movements is more like the others than it is like the rest of the pieces on the CD, so they serve as a sort of motific idea that keeps coming back, reminding you of where the music's been and perhaps where it's going.

 The "With(In)communicado" pieces are based on messages left on Dvorin's answering machine over the course of a month. The messages have been heavily cut and edited, and then combined with other telephone-related materials -- dial tones, operators, dialing noises, etc. I find the results very interesting, but strangely un-nerving; I think it's because of the eerie familiarity of the material. We've all dealt with maddeningly slow voice mail systems, or that annoying "the phone is off the hook" bleeping noise, or garbled answering machine messages -- all products of the strange way we've disconnected ourselves from one another in the course of our attempts to communicate. Strange. 

The rest of the pieces on With(In)communicado range from fairly straightforward guitar compositions to very organic sounding, but clearly electronic/sample-based works that often use guitars or other plucked instruments. "Calendar" is a pretty interesting experiment in which Dvorin recorded 15 seconds of improvisation each day for a month, listening only to the previous day's recording to provide continuity. "Swelled Head" is a nice stew of bowed and prepared psaltery, looped electric guitar fragments and banjo picking, cooked up via computer into an exotic-sounding dish from some unspecified but eclectic land. 

While the music on With(In)communicado is undoubtedly "experimental" in nature, it's also pleasant and engaging -- something that can be pretty hard to pull off. Dvorin has done it, and the result is an enjoyable and memorable release.