Composer’s Quest

Odyssey experience helps students plug in to electronic instruments

By Rachel Thomas '14

Ryan Gaston '12 started playing piano (he thinks) when he was five years old.

His parents didn't make him do it.

"I think it was probably quite a long time before my parents realized that I was playing," Gaston says. "I never had lessons or anything else for it."

One day, when he was at home sick, there happened to be a keyboard in the house. He decided to try it out.

"That's how I got started with music," says Gaston, a Booneville, Ark., native. "And I just kept doing it, and I started composing."

He felt he was better at doing that than he was at speaking.

"To this day, the thoughts I have that I feel aren't best suited to words I try to express through music," he says.

By age 15, he was "pretty tired" of the piano and the trumpet, which he picked up at age 10.

"I'd reached all the limits there, so I thought, ‘What's going to be a new instrument that I can use that I'm not going to find limitations with so quickly?'" says Gaston. "So I thought, ‘Well, I can use an electronic instrument because, really, they can do most anything."

He bought a relatively inexpensive synthesizer. He soon realized that it was going to be able to do much more than a piano, which can only play certain notes and has a static timbre, meaning that a piano always sounds like a piano.

"Whereas, with an electronic instrument, I can do all those little notes between the keys, and it can produce any timbre that you could think of, theoretically," he says.

Since then, Gaston has experimented with other ways to make electronic music, including circuit bending — redesigning audio circuits — and software design.

"You know, people have been doing instrumental composition since before we're really aware of," he says. "Everyone talks about the ancient Greeks beginning it, but who knows if that's actually the case?"

Electronic composition really formally started around the 1940s, so it's an art form that's only about 70 years old now, Gaston says.

"So I think it's interesting because there's really no known codification to it yet, no one's decided what it's for, or what it's not for, so it feels less limiting than writing for a traditional ensemble," he says.

When Gaston arrived at Hendrix, he was unsure of his major. He considered physics, but he soon discovered he liked being taught music as much as he liked teaching himself.

"I came here and just hit it off really well with the professors, I was really pleased with the way they taught ... so it just wound up working really well," Gaston says. "I thought I'd try it out, see if a music degree would work for me, and it turned out that I really was genuinely interested in academic composition, more than just doing things as a hobby. So I continued with it."

Last year, Gaston won top honors at the University of Louisville Young Composer Competition for New Electro-Acoustic Music with his original piece "Nocturne: Crickets (Inside & Out)."

He also earned Odyssey funding for an electronic music research project.

With the help of Hendrix music professors Dr. Karen Griebling and Dr. John Krebs, he convinced the Odyssey Office to use the money to purchase equipment for a modest electronic music studio.

The music department had recently received a donation of Pro Tools, Finale, and Sibelius software, along with a MIDI controller/USB sound card. Gaston created a small body of audio analysis and processing software and donated an amplifier to the department. Odyssey funding was used to purchase a modular synthesizer custom-made by Michael Lamay, along with several utility modules.

"It was great for me that they were so flexible in helping me figure out what I wanted to do, and helping me to provide some more opportunities for people who will be coming through in the future," he says.

Now that he's graduated, Gaston is looking at several graduate programs in music, including one in electronic composition and another one in instrument design.

Rachel Thomas '14 is an English Studies major from Fayetteville, Ark.