Electro-acoustic musician Chasalow focuses on art
Prolific Irving Fine Professor of Music premieres several pieces this season
Eric Chasalow may be on sabbatical this semester, but that hasn’t slowed his schedule.
Last month, renowned Swiss horn soloist Bruno Schneider premiered Chasalow’s Horn Concerto with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. A second Chasalow piece — "Incident and Scatter” — commissioned by the Barlow Endowment for the Talea Ensemble, will have its New York premiere March 9, followed by "On That Swirl of Ending Dust," commissioned by Chamber Music America for the New York New Music Ensemble on April 16. Another traditional modern ensemble, the latter piece, which takes its title from John Berryman’s “Dream Songs,” also makes use of vocal sound sources.
Chasalow, the Irving Fine Professor of Music, is a well-known figure on the Brandeis campus and in Boston music circles. With a reputation for his unique blending of traditional instruments and computer-generated sounds, he is the director of the Brandeis Electro-Acoustic Music Studio (BEAMS), which biennially organizes a marathon performance by students and other musicians as part of the Boston CyberArts Festival. In 1996 he and his wife, Barbara Cassidy, founded the Electroacoustic Oral History Project, which documents the lives and influences of notable musicians.
These days, his work often recontextualizes prior pieces within new compositions. In his “’Scuse Me,’ written for electronic tape and electric guitar, for example, listeners may recognize bits of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”
“The question is, can I be a good enough composer to take from that and make it something more so people don’t just say ‘Ah, I like Jimi Hendrix’,” says Chasalow. “They have to hear me.”
Chasalow, who received a master’s and doctoral degree in music from Columbia University, where he worked in the famed Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, has been honored by numerous organizations, including the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He draws on influences from across myriad genres. His first ambition was to be a member of rock ‘n’ roll’s most famous band.
“When I was 8 years old, I wanted to be a Beatle,” Chasalow says. “Theirs are not just some of the most popular songs, they are the best-written. You would hear a particular chord and it would make your spine tingle; it would make your hair stand up. It was so unexpected and so right and dramatic.”
For Chasalow, who last semester taught the course, “The Beatles: From Yesterday to Tomorrow Never Knows,” that idea never completely faded, but he channeled it in other directions. Growing up in northern New Jersey, where his father worked at Bell Laboratories – developer of the first computer program to play electronic music – Chasalow began experimenting with tape recorders and synthesizers.
Several years later, when he set out for Bates College, it was to study biology. But the small liberal arts college instituted a music major the year he arrived. Interested in both tracks, and hedging his bets, he became a double major. By senior year, Chasalow was simultaneously digging for clams to see how oil spills affected them and writing his first orchestral piece.
“My plan to not go into music didn’t really work out. You end up being an artist because you absolutely have to do it. Many of us tried hard not to do it,” Chasalow says. “I have a lot of students who find themselves in the same situation. People come here and are very serious about all kinds of things and are thinking ‘What am I going to do with my life. I love the arts, but I can’t see that I’m ever going to make a living in the arts.’”
It was back then, in trying to figure out his academic path, Chasalow says, that he realized sometimes you need only figure out “the next thing.”
Inspired by one of his teachers, Mario Davidovsky, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his tape and instrument work, Chasalow spent untold time in the electronic music studio, using razor blades to splice musical tapes to create the sounds he was after.
The work paid off. He remained in New York after graduation and won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
“It was a painstaking process but when there’s something you want to get to, you’re willing to do a lot to get there,” he adds about his own early attempts at combining traditional and electronic music. “You were so depressed when something didn’t work, but when it did, it felt like magic – you had created something you couldn’t create any other way.”
In 1990, Chasalow arrived at Brandeis to pursue an opportunity that was “too interesting to ignore” despite his love for New York City. His first priority was to get the tools students needed so they could start making music without a steep technological learning curve, he says.
After 22 years at Brandeis, Chasalow says he continues to learn something every day from his students and colleagues, whom he says have a genuine respect for one another.
“In the world of composition, Brandeis has, from day one, been a very important place,” says Chasalow, who uses memory and experience as a central idea in his work. “We are probably more aware than lots of places, and proud of it, at how much what we do is connected to a tradition.”