Music School breeds offbeat bands

by Marni Ginther

Few students outside the School of Music are likely to ever wander through the practice rooms of Ferguson Hall. But if they do, they might be surprised by what they hear.

Kris Isackson is an ecology, evolution and behavior junior – about as far from a music major as it gets.

“I tend to think of the marching band or classical music,” Isackson said of the school. “I guess I never associated it with anything besides more traditional music.”

And he’s not alone. While it’s not uncommon to hear the strains of classical music wafting through the halls, there are other genres of music – from jazz to funk to electronica – mixing with those traditional sounds.

“Most people would be surprised to find out what’s going on here,” said professor Doug Geers, who teaches electronic music at the school.

“In the last five or 10 years, a lot of new things have been happening,” Geers said.

He said groups like the New Music Ensemble and Steel Drum Band are examples of experimentation with new genres.

Geers’ own area of study, electronic music, is perhaps one of the most surprising sounds coming out of the school.

In spring 2003, Geers held the first Spark Festival, which he said combines lectures, visual art and performances “to present the most interesting things going on in electronic music.”

Although he said a lot of electronic music at the school is much more experimental than what most students might listen to, such music often gets integrated into pop music over time.

“Hendrix worked with electrical engineers to produce sounds with a guitar that no one had heard before,” he said. “We’re kind of following in that tradition.”

Jazz professor Dean Sorenson had similar things to say about the school’s jazz program.

“There are things you can get away with here that you can’t do commercially,” he said of the school. “We’re not about record sales, like a record company, we’re about advancing the art form.”

Sorenson said a reason people might not know about the jazz, electronic and world music being developed at the school is that so many of those genres are new to academia.

“Most of what the School of Music does is classical in nature because there’s a tradition and a system there,” he said. “Formal jazz education has only been around for about 50 years, so we’re somewhat fighting the relative youth of our fields.”

With all the new genres and experimentation going on at the school, it stands to reason that it becomes a sort of breeding ground for new bands, too. Many of these bands are made up of students, and they play at venues around the Twin Cities.

Snowblind, a jazz band that formed in October after its members played in a University jazz ensemble.

In April they had their first CD release party at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant. The show brought in a record audience for a late-night event, band members said, and they’re playing there in June.

While trumpet player and graduate student Adam Rossmiller said their success has been “more than (they) ever imagined.” Music education senior and drummer Reid Kennedy said that once they saw what was possible, the band “pushed the envelope even more.”

He said the band has to work hard to promote itself; getting out of the classroom and into gigs is a challenge facing all bands coming out of the school.

Another one of those bands is Max Girth.

Each year, the University Marching Band has a representative brass quintet to play for smaller events.

Max Girth used to be that quintet. Although the band no longer is associated with the Marching Band, the members have stayed together. Now, band members said, they’re expanding their repertoire and playing gigs all over – from when CBS’s “The Early Show” came to campus during homecoming 2005 to Quebec’s Winter Carnival to the funeral of a University graduate who wanted the rouser played at the service.

The band’s repertoire includes Frank Sinatra tunes, classical pieces and soon, a new arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”

Max Girth trumpet player and music education senior Maureen Holtzman summarized what they and many other students in the School of Music are doing.

“Not everyone in the School of Music can be molded into a classical musician,” she said. “So we take the music, make it our own and bring it to people.”