By Tyler Smith
Due to the abrupt halt of live events because of the pandemic, Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio (ESS) has begun an online series titled “The Quarantine Concerts.” The concerts, held on the streaming platform Twitch, involve artists from all over the world. With each artist given a half-hour slot to perform whatever they desire, every concert results in a diverse musical jumble. Earlier in April, ESS featured improvised sets by Oberlin professor Dana Jessen, and by Hanson Records owner Aaron Dilloway.
If you stumbled upon Jessen’s set and were unfamiliar with her style, you would soon have become pleasantly intrigued. After a polite welcome to the virtual audience, she began with brash tremolos and non-standard manipulation of her bassoon. This vigorous introduction, in combination with her closed eyes for the duration of the performance, created a powerful sense of aggressive reflection. Impacted by distortion from the peaking microphone, the opening theme slowly morphed into a beautiful Stravinsky-esque melody. Jessen, the master of extended double-reed techniques, proved to the listener that she can in fact do everything, and pull it off without missing a beat.
Speaking of missing a beat, this lush melody was unfortunately cut off by two critical messages from Papa John’s and Sprint, snapping the audience back into the reality of attending a virtual performance. Why Twitch cannot put their commercials at the beginning or end of streams is something we may never find out — but let’s move on.
The second section of Jessen’s improvisation was similar to the first, however that took nothing away from its electrifying atmosphere. Employing the bassoon’s lower register, Jessen produced machine-like whirs and overtones. Without watching, you probably wouldn’t have been able to discern what instrument was being played. The movement eventually dove into a pool of insanity — requiring Jessen to take frequent breaths while projecting short, berserk phrases.
For her final section Jessen put down the bassoon, improvising with only the reed — a common technique of Jessen’s improvisations. This shorter piece involved squeaky, rhythmic passages that evoked the sounds of bird calls and spring peepers. This provided a stark contrast to the earlier material, and a wonderful way to end an exciting half hour of improv. To quote a comment by the esteemed Twitch user RobGCLE; “doesn’t seem to matter how many times i’ve seen her, Dana still f****n rips it.”
On to something completely different, Aaron Dilloway’s performance took place in his bedroom. With a large table outfitted with a mixer, tape deck, and more wires than you could shake a stick at, it was quite the spectacle. Right off the bat, he introduced his audience to his substantial setup, including an array of baseball caps on his bed, a small tray with cheese and crackers, and a vodka martini — he came prepared.
While still finishing his introduction, Dilloway began his set with high pitched electronic loops that quickly turned into a heavy dance beat. He made slight adjustments, changing some effects here and there, but mostly letting the music go while boppin’ along.
Every so often the beat would fade and reveal a more abstract transition, during which Dilloway would grab some cheese, switch out one hat for another, and take a sip of his martini, only to come right back in full swing with another groove.
At one point the audience was rudely interrupted by a persistent gecko attempting to sell auto insurance. But putting that aside, the energy never dropped during the entire set. It was clear Dilloway was having the time of his life.
These are just two examples of the music you’ll find during the daily performances hosted by Experimental Sound Studio. The Oberlin community was fortunate to be represented by two musical giants in this series, and hopefully there will be more Oberlin representation to come. The concerts can be found on the Twitch application, or under the link on the ESS website. Maybe by now Twitch has reevaluated how they present their advertisements.