Winner of the 2012 Musicworks electronic music contest
In addition to having recently won the Musicworks Electronic Music Contest with his first ever acousmatic piece, Buried Gesture, Bennett Jenisch also writes and performs with his live electronic band Moth Vegas. “I would say that probably about half of what I produce is stuff like the Moth Vegas project [an audiovisual project with collaborator Devon Fisher], and the other half is related to school or comes through school—the more academic pieces.”
Jenisch grew up in Frankfurt, Germany and has been studying music at Northeastern University in Boston since 2010. Buried Gesture, the eight-minute piece that won him first place in the 2012 Musicworks contest was originally written as part of his music studies course at Northeastern. An evocative—almost programmatic—electroacoustic work, Buried Gesture was inspired by the work of acousmatic composers Denis Smalley and Andrew Lewis. The piece also shares common ground with the acoustic doom-music style of Norwegian musician Erik K. Skodvin. The word gesture occurs in the title because the processed field recordings that make up the piece were designed to evoke a series of veiled human gestures. Jenisch’s intention is to work with the tension that those gestures create, taking the listener to an imaginary vantage point, which lends the piece its somewhat sinister air. “The concept was that you’re listening from under the surface of the earth and you’re not really sure what’s going on above ground. All the hammering is to suggest that people are building cities on the surface, but you don’t know for sure what’s going on because all you have is the sounds.”
Buried Gesture was constructed by processing a series of five-second samples sourced from Jenisch’s field recordings. The recordings were made by close-miking interactions with everyday objects such as plants and by capturing actions such as hammering on sheet metal to suggest the sound of footsteps. “One thing I sampled is one of those salad spinners you use for drying salad. As a listener you subconsciously know that someone is making that sound and it’s not just happening, because you associate it with something that you too have done before, like cranking something up.” Jenisch then stitched together multiple phrases to allow surprising polyrhythms to emerge, employing those rhythms and tones to build organically to the climax of the piece. “What usually happens is that I add two or three samples at different rhythms to get a kind of cumulative polyrhythm that’s happening because of all three samples hanging together. I’ll do that four or five times to get different rhythms, and then choose the one that pleases my ear the most.”
Jenisch was introduced to acousmatic music—in particular the work of the New Zealand-born composer Denis Smalley—by a professor at Northeastern. “Smalley’s idea of spatializing sounds is something I was very interested in, and from Andrew Lewis I took the whole idea of trying to create clarity within the samples. His work is really clear and mixed really nicely, and it’s an inspiration to try to get your own samples to sound like that.” Composing acousmatic music appeals to Jenisch because it creates an environment that allows for the manipulation of samples and the invention of new textures. “I enjoy recording my surrounding environment as the source material for my compositions, as it brings the physical world into the phrases of my music.”
Jenisch is keen to point out that his musical interests are not limited to academic composition, citing German minimal techno producer Hendrik Weber, a.k.a. Pantha Du Prince, as an influence on his work. By the same token, Jenisch’s music with Moth Vegas—despite benefitting from his formal musical education—bears more than passing comparison to Pitchfork darlings Animal Collective.
After graduation, Jenisch may decide to stay in the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree, but he’s also feeling the pull of Europe. “A lot of the big composers in the acousmatic field are in England, so if I want to pursue more of that kind of music I think I’ll probably go back to Europe. There are also a lot of opportunities for electronic-music research in France, or I could go back home—but I don’t have any concrete plans as yet.” Given his interest in both formal composition and contemporary electronic music, anything could happen.
Buried Gesture (2012) 8:32. Composed by Bennett Jenisch. Buried Gesture is an acousmatic piece that was composed under the guidance of my composition professor Mike Frengel in Boston, MA. All sound sources stem from field recordings I took that then were processed to various degrees both on my personal laptop and at the tech lab at Northeastern University. The piece explores the contrast between the sounds of human gestures and those of our primordial mother earth. The tension and rhythm that human gestures carry are what gives this piece forward momentum, and the release of this same tension always brings the listener back to earth. —Bennett Jenisch © 2012 Bennett Jenisch. Image: Bennett Jenisch. Image by: Taylor Jenisch.