At 5:45 PM on Saturday, August 7, 2021, the other-worldly sounds of composer Olly Wilson’s germinal electronic composition Cetus rang out from the Clark Bandstand in Tappan Square, Oberlin, Ohio, beginning the first-ever CETUS SoundArts Fest. We named this festival in homage to Wilson, who, in 1968, won the first ever prize for an electronic music composition for Cetus. From 1965 to 1970, Wilson was a professor at Oberlin Conservatory, where he taught the first courses in electronic music, the genesis of what today is Oberlin’s Technology in Music and Related Arts program, or TIMARA. Playing Cetus set the tone for what we hoped would be two or three hours of adventurous electronics-centric music, created in the moment, right before our ears.
Unfortunately, CETUS SoundArts Fest got washed out by a torrential storm, before we got even halfway through our lineup. Due to a COVID resurgence, thanks to the virulent Delta variant, we intentionally lacked an alternate indoor location. We also had no rain date, because our visiting headliners, composers and performers Lainie Fefferman and Jascha Narveson, were only available for that day. So we pressed on, despite slightly iffy weather prospects. But the deluge that came shortly before 6:00 PM was not predicted by any forecast we saw.
Good fortune seemed to be smiling on us as we got the program rolling right on time. Our friends from NOYO Lab Group (a project of the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra) kicked things off with a bass -trombone-led group improvisation. Each of Ephrem King’s trombone phrases set off a whirl of echoes and counterpoints in Jessica Narum’s synthesizer, Colin Holter’s electric guitar, and Eli Leder’s electric bass.
Next up, still under benign-looking skies, was False Ocean, an avant-garde band from Cleveland, featuring Kai Becker on bass and electronics, Raven Clark on vocals, Josh Hall on vocals and electronics, Michael De La Cruz on electronics and synthesizer, David Lee on guitar, and Max Reynolds on drums. False Ocean provided this impressionistic introduction to the band.
False Ocean is inspired by the city upon whose shores they sound, where young people adapt to a weathered ruling past that too often forgets there is a future, theirs. Echoing the discord of life in post-industrial Cleveland via electronic experimentation, high-voltage improvisation, and musical fusion (though plans for nuclear are rumored on the table), its noises are belligerently amorphous, sound waves flowing from one moment to the next to fill space like hard water and the city on it. False Ocean is fed by the sounds and attitude of this industrial landscape, harmonizing to the hum of hurting machines that carries through the air, same as the smoke that sticks to our spit and clouds our stories ‘til we have to scream them to strip it out of our lungs. The atmosphere around this False Ocean is chaotic, exhausting, and desperate, and at the same time this is our catharsis. We punch up with the jaded stubbornness of midwestern youth, hear ourselves where it is already loud, and buzz with the static of Rust Belt possibility. It feels dangerous to be around this False Ocean, but smelting yourself in sound, down til we’re something stronger, is survival. And surviving this together? You feel strong as steel. You feel like family.
False Ocean dedicated their performance to those we have lost during the pandemic, as a wake in this time of no funerals, to remember those now gone, and to share our collective grief. False Ocean poured all they had into a cathartic set full of equal measures of pandemic-induced rage and sorrow.
We did a quick stage turn, and just as Arlene completed her introduction of the third act, Drew Smith, light rain began to fall began to fall. Before Drew could even begin, the water was coming down in sheets. Propelled by a 40-mile-per-hour wind, it was blowing rain straight through the bandstand. Everyone scurried to cover equipment, especially the electronic gear. But the storm bested us. Too much equipment got so wet, no one wanted to turn anything back on until it had a chance to dry out. Reluctantly, we called a halt, and CETUS SoundArts Fest came to a premature end.
The biggest disappointment for the performers and listeners was losing the chance to play, or hear, more music. Here’s the stellar lineup of sound artists we never got to hear.
- Drew Smith, an improviser, composer, technologist, and artist, who plays guitar, synthesizer and electronics, both as a solo artist and with groups like the Oberlin Synthesizer Ensemble, Chroma Burst, D.O.G., and The Henry Nelson Ensemble.
- A trio of Michael Gapsari, a composer, synth player, electronic music artist, programmer, and songwriter/poet; Tempest Baum, a singer, multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, actor, and director from the San Francisco Bay Area, currently studying in the TIMARA program at Oberlin Conservatory; and Hamish Robb, a guitarist, sound designer, and composer of experimental music, currently based in Ohio and majoring in computer science and musical studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory.
- Claudia Hinsdale, a songwriter, composer, and performer who makes sounds to live inside of.
- Narvefeffer, a duo composed of Lainie Fefferman, who makes music by putting dots on lines, drawing curves in software, writing code in boxes, and finding new ways to wiggle her vocal chords; and Jascha Narveson, who was raised in a concert hall, was put to sleep as a child with a vinyl copy of the Bell Labs mainframe singing “Bicycle Built for Two,” and now makes music for people, machines, and interesting combinations of people and machines.
Despite all the disappointments of CETUS SoundArts Fest getting washed away, everyone involved expressed a deep sense of satisfaction and gratitude, just for the opportunity to be together and making/hearing live music. We sparked so much joy among the performers, the listeners, and even people far and wide who could not be there physically, yet somehow were there vicariously. It made every bit of time, toil, and treasure we invested in this project worthwhile. We hope that somewhere in this vast universe, Olly Wilson was smiling that his life’s work was ringing out on Tappan Square, along with music by others inspired by him and in homage to him, in 2021.
We convey our bounteous thanks to everyone who came out to hear some adventurous music, only to get soaked; to all of our sound artists; and to Oberlin Concert Sound and Wayne Wood at Oberlin College, for all their help in making CETUS SoundArts Fest happen.