Arts & Culture

A visit with musician Hans Tutschku

7 min read

Electroacoustic music has a special home in Paine Hall presided over by a world-renowned composer

Up in the eaves of Paine Music Hall, professor of music Hans Tutschku is hard at work composing in a setting that would make Mozart’s head spin. The space is small but packed with equipment: computer monitors, eight loudspeakers, a turntable, and several mixers and synthesizers with enough levers to land a 747.

“Welcome to the studio,” Tutschku says, a shy smile on his face.

The Harvard University Studio for Electroacoustic Composition (HUSEAC) is a collection of four sound-production rooms, all equipped with cutting-edge technology. Undergraduates enrolled in special seminars and grad students in the music program can use the HUSEAC facilities to develop and edit compositions.

Electroacoustic music blends innovative electronic sounds with recordings of traditional acoustic instruments. The pieces are then performed on a complex loudspeaker system. Tutschku, director of the HUSEAC, has been composing in the genre since 1982. His arrival at Harvard in 2004 marked the regeneration of HUSEAC and the beginning of a new chapter in the long, storied history of the Music Department.

Tutschku, 43, was born and raised in Weimar, East Germany. From his earliest days, he enjoyed a home filled with music; both of his parents played stringed instruments. Tutschku added his own touch to the domestic euphony when he began to study piano at the age of 6. He also became interested in drama, and at age 13 joined the youth acting group affiliated with the Weimar Theater.

“Acting was an excellent second track for my artistic education, and it had a great influence on many of the things I do today in terms of trying to bridge the borders of art forms,” Tutschku says.

In 1982, while he was in high school, Tutschku met Michael von Hintzenstern, leader of a four-musician group called the Ensemble für Intuitive Musik. The ensemble performed “intuitive music” by composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who gave his musicians just a text — no score — and encouraged them to perform based on their own interpretive understanding.

When Von Hintzenstern asked him to join the group as a keyboardist, Tutschku readily agreed. He also began working with live electronics and synthesizers to transform the sound of the ensemble as it was produced, although he did not have much experience with the technology.

“I simply learned as I went along,” says Tutschku.

He must have learned quickly, because he began regular performances with the ensemble soon thereafter — and still plays with them today.

In the ensemble’s early years, the musicians often explored subjects that the German Democratic Republic considered taboo. Nonetheless, the ensemble garnered a great following among the citizens of East Germany. Since reunification, the ensemble has performed in more than 30 countries throughout the world. In addition to Tutschku, who now focuses almost exclusively on electronics, the group includes a trumpet player, a cellist, and a pianist. They perform about 10-15 concerts per year, reuniting for intensive rehearsal periods beforehand.

“It is such an important experience to play with the same musicians for a long time and get to know each other well,” Tutschku says. “Music making is a conversation, and familiarity with fellow musicians enables you to go in directions that are sometimes not possible with people you have just met.”

Tutschku came to Harvard in 2004, after two decades of teaching, composing, and performing in Europe. His first task in Cambridge? Build a state-of-the-art electroacoustic studio in a building more than a century old.

At the time, Harvard was no stranger to the use of technology in music composition. In 1968, the University opened the Harvard Electronic Music Studio (HEMS), which focused on live electronic processing in performance. The Harvard Computer Music Center (HCMC) opened in 1994 to provide a venue for the “teaching of analog studio techniques within the computer realm.” The studio envisioned by Tutschku, however, would take the use of technology in music to an entirely new level.

It took more than 18 months to complete, but HUSEAC finally opened its doors in the spring of 2006.

“It was such an involved project,” Tutschku says. “My colleagues and I ran all kinds of acoustical tests to ensure that sound would not leak from the studio into the performance space below, and vice versa.”

Two of the studios are entirely uncoupled from the rest of the building, in terms of vibration. This is achieved by an elaborate spring system that supports the concrete floors, so that the studio is essentially a suspended cage. All rooms are equipped with muffled air-conditioning, and there are sound-dampening materials on the walls, ceiling, and floor. Composers can close the door and enjoy a perfectly quiet atmosphere.

Many students have taken advantage of the HUSEAC, primarily through Tutschku’s composition courses. These are open to all undergraduates and graduates, regardless of musical experience or background.

“Electronic music is totally new for many of these students,” he says.

Tutschku’s assignments reflect his commitment to encouraging creativity and self-expression. He asks undergraduates to take portable recording gear out into Cambridge and beyond, to discover their own material as they familiarize themselves with the technology. For another assignment, he requests that students write a short story and then tell it with recorded sounds.

Once the compositions are finalized, Tutschku teaches the students how to play them on Hydra, a 32-loudspeaker sound system that can be set up in Paine Hall or in other venues on and beyond campus.

“Certain speakers have different sound types and specific roles, much like instruments in an orchestra,” says Tutschku. “When the student diffuses the piece over the speakers, he or she becomes composer and conductor simultaneously.”

Though he spends a great deal of time introducing students to the marvels of HUSEAC, Tutschku also finds space in his schedule to develop his own compositions. He is a highly prolific artist, having produced 50 works since 1986. His repertoire covers a range of genres, including electroacoustic and acoustic compositions, works for film and theater, sound installations, and multimedia projects. He has received many awards including first prize at the international Musica Nova competition (2006) and the culture prize of the city of Weimar (2005).

Tutschku’s most recent work is “Zwei Räume,” or “Two Spaces,” a 24-channel electroacoustic composition that was performed at the Festival Inventionen of the Technische Universität Berlin, 2008.

For inspiration, Tutschku draws on poetry, turning often to Austrian expressionist Georg Trakl or lyric poet Karl Lubomirski.

With nearly three decades of international concert experience under his belt, Tutschku has found that there are “clear differences” in how various cultures perceive contemporary music.

“In South America, there is no big difference between ‘Bach’ and ‘Tutschku’ because it is all not ‘their’ music. The audience is open to experiencing new art,” he says. “But in Europe, the response is often more intellectual. Audiences try to classify what kind of piece they are listening to, to put it in a box and then approach it.”

The age of the listener, however, seems to have little bearing on how he or she will respond to Tutschku’s compositions. He shares an anecdote from the mid-1980s, when he was playing in a church in Germany and saw an old woman sitting in the first pew.

“For a fraction of a second, I thought she might have mixed up the concert dates,” he says. “But after the performance, she came up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Thank you so much. Now I am ready to die.’”

“I was completely distraught,” Tutschku recalls, “and immediately asked her why.”

“Now I know what music will sound like in the next century,” she replied.

“I was so touched and moved, but also ashamed because I had assumed incorrectly that she wouldn’t enjoy the concert,” Tutschku says.