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ASU's contemporary music festival presents iconic, rarely performed works

people sitting in circle on laptops

Numerous students in the School of Music and the School of Arts, Media and Engineering are participating in this year’s Prisms Contemporary Music Festival, including LOrkAS, the Laptop Orchestra of Arizona State University.

November 02, 2016

“Noise spectra” is the exploration of the continuum between noise and sound. It’s also the focus and the title of this year’s Prisms Contemporary Music Festival at the ASU School of Music.

Often dismissed as ugly and unwanted sound, noise is a powerful ingredient in many musical compositions. In his article “The Joys of Noise,” American composer Henry Cowell writes, “Without the punctuation of cymbal and bass drum, the climaxes of our greatest symphonies would be like jelly fish.” He also says, “There is a noise element in the very tone itself of all our musical instruments.” The ninth edition of Prisms highlights this view and presents compelling music dedicated to noise spectra, rich arrays of tone colors, comparable to rainbows of colors in visible light when seen through a prism.

“The Prisms festival theme allows us to present live performances of such iconic yet rarely heard works as Edgard Varèse’s ‘Ionisation’ for 13 percussionists, Tristan Murail’s ‘Ethers’ and György Ligeti’s iconoclastic and though-provoking ‘Poème symphonique’ for 100 metronomes,” said Sabine Feisst, professor of musicology. “The festival programs span works composed in the last 120 years, with the majority of the repertoire created in the new millennium.”

Offering the highest-quality performances of experimental music in the Phoenix metropolitan area, the annual ASU School of Music Prisms Festival is comprised of themed concerts and showcases great music that is rarely performed, along with pre-concert talks, round tables, film screenings, installations and workshops. The festival, founded by Simone Mancuso and Glenn Hackbarth in 2009, promotes the view that music is a living tradition — an exciting and vibrant part of modern life — and passes on that belief by combining performances with informative lectures and discussions for ASU students, faculty and the local community.

The festival will take place Nov. 17-20, on ASU’s Tempe campus, and is organized by Simone Mancuso, faculty associate of percussion; Sabine Feisst, professor of musicology; and Garth Paine, associate professor of music composition.

“Each year we offer a wide range of events and pioneering works, from inventors of a trend to representatives of the latest and most innovative tendency,” said Mancuso. “This year we highlight the trajectory from the intonarumori (noise intoners) of noise champion Luigi Russolo to the ‘Dirty Electronics’ of cutting-edge artist John Richards.”

The first concert of the festival features the virtuosic San Diego New Music Ensemble performing Arizona premieres of Tristan Murail’s “Ethers” (1978) and Garth Paine’s new work, “No Stone Unturned.” Both works imaginatively traverse a wide range of tone and noise spectra. Led by ASU saxophone professor Christopher Creviston, the Capitol Quartet performs Iannis Xenakis’s riveting all-saxophone work “XAS.” Joining these ensembles is Robert Spring, professor of clarinet, performing music by Giacinto Scelsi.

“This year’s festival explores music at the edge of noise and shows how noise has influenced musical tastemakers,” said Paine. “We will reconsider the foundations of music and demonstrate how noise can be powerfully used in musical textures, in timbres, melodies and in spectacular floating masses of sound.”

Another highlight of the festival will be the free two-day “Dirty Electronics” workshop directed by internationally renowned artist John Richards from DeMontfort University, England, Nov. 18–19 in the ASU Stauffer B building, room B111. Students will learn how to build unusual instruments involving small electronics and use them in the second concert of the festival. In the second concert, Richards will present his own composed and improvised music and perform with vocalist Justin Kennedy, doctoral student in composition. Richards will also present a guest lecture, “Slow Circuits and Noisy Design,” on Nov. 17 in the Arts, Media and Engineering Digital Culture Speaker series, ASU Stauffer B-wing, room B125, 3–4 p.m.

This year the Phoenix-based interdisciplinary ensemble UrbanStew will exhibit their award-winning instruments modeled after the Intonarumori (noise intoners) invented by Italian futurist composer Luigi Russolo. These instruments will be displayed in an installation in Cowley Lobby before each concert and can be played by audiences, including children.

Numerous students in the School of Music and the School of Arts, Media and Engineering are participating in the festival, including members of the Arizona Contemporary Music Ensemble and LOrkAS, the Laptop Orchestra of Arizona State University.

“I hope that the participants in this festival will be inspired by the spectrum of music and discussions offered,” said Feisst. “And hopefully they will explore these musical directions further, as performers, composers or as listeners.”

Text says Prisms Contemporary Music Festival 7th edition. Images are of seven musicians, six men and one woman.

This year’s Prisms Contemporary Music Festival will take place Nov. 17-20 at ASU's School of Music.

Festival highlights

Guest Lecture: “Slow Circuits and Noisy Design”
3–4 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 17
B125, Stauffer B-wing, 1st floor, ASU Arts, Media and Engineering
John Richards, guest speaker
Admission: free

“Dirty Electronics” Workshop
9 a.m.–noon, 1 – 5 p.m., Friday, Nov. 18
9 a.m.–2 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 19
B111, Stauffer B-wing, 1st floor, ASU Arts, Media and Engineering
John Richards, director
Admission: free
This workshop focuses on the building of new instruments based on small electronics and the use of these instruments in performance. This workshop is co-sponsored by LOrkAS, the Laptop Orchestra of ASU.

Masterclass: Flute
11:50 a.m., Friday, Nov. 18
Recital Hall, ASU School of Music
Artist: Rachel Beetz

 6–7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Nov. 18 and 19
10:30–11:30 a.m., Sunday, Nov. 20
Cowley Lobby, ASU School of Music
UrbanStew: Interactive Installation of Luigi Russolo’s instruments intonarumori (noise intoners) for audience participation

Concert 1
7:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 18
Katzin Concert Hall, ASU School of Music
Simone Mancuso, Director
Tickets: $5–9
Purchase tickets at 
Featuring the San Diego New Music Ensemble, the Capitol Quartet and ASU School of Music faculty, Christopher Creviston, associate professor of saxophone, Robert Spring, professor of clarinet, and Garth Paine, this concert includes works by Giacinto Scelsi and Iannis Xenakis and showcase the Arizona premieres of Tristan Murail’s “Ethers” for solo flute and 5 instruments (1978) and Garth Paine’s “No Stone Unturned” for ensemble and electronics (2016).

Concert 2
7:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 19
Katzin Concert Hall, School of Music
Tickets: $5–9
Purchase tickets at
This concert features compositions, performances and improvisations by internationally renowned guest artist John Richards (DeMontfort University, England). Richards will also perform in collaboration with LorkAS, ASU’s laptop orchestra, and the participants of his “Dirty Electronics” workshop, using an array of sound sources including voice, sudophones, motors, stones, scrubbing brushes and electronics.

Concert 3 
noon, Sunday, Nov. 20
Simone Mancuso, Director
Katzin Concert Hall, School of Music
Admission: free
The Arizona Contemporary Music Ensemble presents pieces composed by Chaya Czernowin, Gerard Grisey, György Ligeti, Helmut Lachenmann, Corte Lippe, Tristan Murail, Kaija Saariaho, Giacinto Scelsi and Edgard Varèse. Highlights are Arizona premieres of Ligeti’s “Poème Symphonique” for 100 metronomes, Lachenmann’s “Guero” and “Trio Fluido” and a version of Varèse’s iconic “Ionisation” featuring two theremins.

Pre-concert lectures will be presented by Sabine Feisst, professor of musicology, Kristina Knowles, instructor in music theory, and by graduate students in musicology.

For more information on the Contemporary Music Festival, go to

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