The billboards were up days ago-three of them, placed strategically at different spots along I-95. The bright colors and 8-bit fonts have surely the eyes of countless drivers, some of whom are sure to follow-up, just to see what all the fuss is about. And what a lot of fuss it is: The seventh annual Electroacoustic Barn Dance, held on the JU campus this Thursday through Saturday, is a masterpiece of logistics.
Billed as "an academic conference for electronic artists", the festival will feature the work of some 94 different composers, representing 67 different colleges and universities, including JU itself, with ten of their own students participating as well. In addition, the artists will be augmented by the cream of the school's music faculty, including cellist Shannon Lockwood, artist-in-residence Tony Steve on percussion, and their inestimable Director of Jazz Studies, John Ricci, playing alto saxophone.
"I'm coming from more of a straight ahead jazz background," says Ricci, "but was approached by one of my direct colleagues, composer, percussionist and world musician Professor Tony Steve to be a part of the endeavor to bring back EABD to JU. It had been here before, but through a collaboration between a Dr. Snyder, Prof. Steve, and Dr. Michael Olson (who will be coming back to be a part of things again this year). For me, it will be challenging to direct my playing into such a controlled, yet sonically powerful, soundstage to interacting with a laptop as opposed to a few other acoustic instrumentalists."
The festival was founded by composer Mark Snyder, currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Business at their College of Fine Arts. "I started the first festival as a graduate student at the University of Memphis while pursuing my doctor of musical arts," he says. "At the time, there wasn't a lot of electronic music going on within the program so I figured the best way for me to see what was new and happening in the field was to start a festival where there would be a call for scores so I would be able to look at things from all over the world to give me ideas of how I can use technology to make my art more impactful or at the very least be able to deliver it better."
The festival finds itself in Jacksonville after a whirlwind decade that's seen it established all over the southeast. "The first Festival was called Imagine II," says Snyder, "and was at the University of Memphis from 2004-2006, then the Electroacoustic Juke Joint from 2007-2009 at Delta State University [Mississippi, home of the "Fighting Okra"] and 2010 at University of North Alabama and finally, the Electroacoustic Barn Dance at the University of Mary Washington [Virginia] from 2011-2016."
The festival shines some well-deserved light on the University's music program, which doesn't get quite as much attention as those of their colleagues at UNF and FSCJ. "We have finally established a unique program that's suited to the private environment at JU," says Ricci. "It's a blend of jazz studies and commercial music, or a Bachelor of Music with a concentration Jazz Studies and Commercial Music. The new degree program is entering its third year. It's taken time to establish things, but we now have the ability to maintain a rigorous performance centered jazz studies curriculum while training students to write, self-produce, self-promote and innovate through special projects geared to prepare them for either graduate programs or direct immersion into an ever changing music industry. We've got about 25 students involved between the courses and ensembles at this point and growing."
"The level of talent and the quality of teaching and scholarship in the Division of Music is some of the best I've ever been around," says Snyder. "That's important not only for students to witness how it needs to be done, but because they are so dedicated to their students. To be in a program where all of us understand that we are here to serve the students and not the other way around is a gift. You can trace the success of our students straight to the pedagogy of their professors."
For the musicians, this setting offers a welcome challenge to adapt their style to a wholly new creative environment. "It's intent and focus is to be immersive within the context of musical overtones and synthetically generated wavelengths," says Ricci. "The rhythmic parameters are broader, in a sense, that so much more can be created by 'laptopping'. It presents new challenges as I need to engage with some wider dimensions, in a manner of understanding it."
For Snyder, the Electroacoustic Barn Dance is thrilling not just for its own sake, but also as far as the opportunities it presents him as an educator, which for him remains the most important thing. "I feel what this festival does best is create a community of artists willing to share what they are doing and most important to me," he says, "is that it relies on the students to produce it. My students learn so much from this event that just can't be taught in a classroom. It a great teaching tool that also shows them how important serving our disciplines community is and when they succeed, the compliments and admiration from the participants impacts them much more than any praise I can give them. I'm their teacher. They expect me to be supportive but when complete strangers praise their work, it gives them a confidence I never could."
Snyder had been a guest artist here in 2014, and he jumped at the chance to join the faculty full-time. "There's almost too many good things to say about JU, the CFA and Division of Music, and my impression has only improved since arriving," he says. "As a faculty member, the level of support I receive from my Chair, Dean, Provost, President and support staff is second to none. ... My colleagues in Art, Chris Hicks and Lily Kuonen, went to great lengths to make sure we had a great space for the after-hours events for the festival this year and for someone that's new to town, that was invaluable."
Ricci emphasizes the utter novelty of this event, something that has rarely happened anywhere, let alone here in Northeast Florida: "It's an opportunity to learn a great deal about an approach that many do not even realize exists. The performances will completely engage and engulf you, as you will be completely immersed and surrounded by a well-balanced soundstage. Many of the themes for inspiration behind the works run quite deep. And the blending of instrumentation, although rather disparate in some ways, is ironically relatable. Got to be there to understand." And we will be!