Sound of Something New - Professor David Dvorin Pushes the Musical Envelope
Howard Hardee - Chico News & Review
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.”