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Sam Hertz: Sound machine

February 24, 2017
By Emmy Newman'17

Last week, Beloit alumnus Sam Hertz'10 was on campus for several classroom visits and a performance of Snake Talk. The Terrarium sat down with him to discuss Beloit, his latest award  DARE Arts Prize, and what musical artists you should be listening to.


Sam Hertz 

1. What was your major when you were at Beloit, what kind of activities were you involved in on campus, and how have they influenced you post-grad?

I was an interdisciplinary studies major at Beloit, though I'm primarily a composer/sound-artist. At Beloit I focused more in English literature and philosophy. I was fairly active in music while at Beloit though. I played in the college's orchestra and chamber music ensembles my whole time here, as well as directed a 'new music' ensemble while I was a senior. I think being in the position of designing my own major/curriculum in the IDST department demanded from me the drive to really decide on an idea, and bring it to fruition -- professionally this turns out to be an incredibly important and invaluable skill.

2. What made you decide to attend an MFA program for composition and electronic music?

After working a full-time job in Chicago managing an art gallery for a number of years, and making art and performing after working hours and on the weekends, I decided that I needed to pursue music as a profession and not a sideline gig. Fortunately, I had spent enough time in Chicago collaborating with a number of dance/performance companies and musicians to form a nice portfolio of work. My choice to study at Mills College was primarily based on the strength of their faculty there -- it's a very rich (musically) program with great resources in the middle of a very creative community. Its also a very open program in terms of interest: it's a very self-directed curriculum which allows you to engage in academic and artistic research based upon your own interests and skill-set. Getting an MFA seemed like a good decision based also on the fact that it's technically a terminal degree, which would enable me to instruct at institutions if I desired.

3. How did your Beloit education prepare you to make your own way as an artist? What do you wish you learned in your time here?

I think in general, fostering a community ethic of 'making things happen' is a powerful tool that's reinforced on this campus, and one that I find is very beneficial once students move outside of the undergraduate realm. This becomes an immensely important skill as an artist (though I'd argue it's beneficial in-and-of itself). To work as a professional artist outside of an institution -- though now I occasionally have institutional support -- means that it's incumbent upon you and your collaborators to track down funding, support systems, advertising/PR, venues, and so on. Despite Beloit College being an institution, I think this is essentially the same skill-set that is fostered here, and one that I'm glad I was able to be fluent in by the time I left school here. The flip-side is that since Beloit is so small, I think it's hard to offer a variety of courses having to do with arts entrepreneurship (though now I see that there are some!). This, I think, was an essential component I missed -- a structured approach to the practicalities of living and working as a professional artist. Thankfully, it seems now that it's being addressed!

4. Do you feel like Beloit has changed a lot since you went here?

My initial reaction to being back on campus was that it looked completely different! Now, after being here for a few days, it doesn't seem to have changed a huge amount (physically). Talking to former professors of mine though, it does seem that Beloit is going through some less cosmetic changes as well -- for instance, I'm very glad to see the music department opening up and broadening in scope compared to when I was a student here.

5. How has your time on campus been working with students?

Maryanna and I have had a great time working with students here so far! We've both been teaching/visiting courses together and separate, which has been a really fun way to engage with academic work through our own artistic and academic research interests. In the collaborative project, it's been a huge pleasure to work side-by-side with our group. We've engaged in an intensive process of material generation and feedback processes with them, which was been very informative for us. In general, it's great to be able to take the time to work closely with a small group in order to learn a bit more about each other and our individual working styles, and then to take these somewhat divergent practices and fit them together into a structure. It's a continuous practice, and we're very happy to have had such willing and open participants!

6. Can you tell us about receiving the Dare Arts Prize? The process for being chosen and what you plan to do with it now? More importantly, what is infrasound?

The DARE Arts Prize is indeed a huge and exciting honor to receive! The prize itself stems from an open-call for proposals -- out of a large number of proposals I was included on a shortlist of five artists, and then after interviewing in person in Leeds, I was chosen! The prize essentially consists of two things: one is a research fellowship at the University of Leeds working in tandem with environmental/climate scientists, music technology researchers, and the Opera North opera company; the other is a quite sizeable grant which enables me to spend the next year creating a production based on the outcomes of my research. Infrasound is the main topic of my research, though it extends into a variety of different fields. Essentially, infrasound is sound below the threshold of human hearing, yet in some sense we can still 'hear' these sounds as vibrations. Hearing and feeling are not so different after all! Infrasound has a variety of particular effects on humans at different frequencies: it can induce anxiety or pleasure, produce visual smearing, vibrate organs, cause sickness, and exacerbate structural integrities of buildings. The infrasonic spectrum is also where communication between some animals (elephants and whales, for example) resides, as well as where we sense seismological readings and large-scale weapons detonations. What is important about this is that infrasound is produced by humans through industrial means, but also exists naturally -- what I'm interested in researching is how infrasound affects humans, and if human-caused climate change causes some of these sounds to be produced. We (humans) are part of a very complex feedback loop with our surrounding environment, and infrasound is one of the lenses through which we can begin to understand another layer of these complex entanglements. Over the course of the next year, I'll be working on a piece of music -- as well as research -- for presentation in the UK in April of 2018.

7. What advice do you have for current Beloiters on following their artistic passions?

The first thing to know is that self-motivation is key, but one of the best ways to position yourself to be working as a professional artist is to be a part of an active, exciting, and motivating community. To be an artist in today's society involves a huge amount of work, so it's incredibly important to be surrounded by supportive communities. I strongly believe in showing and sharing as much as possible -- this is what Maryanna and I have tried to emphasize in our time here -- and within that community and collaboration are essential. Additionally, I think it's immensely important to have strong critical writing skills -- good proposal/grant writing skills are invaluable, and being able to clearly articulate your practice (goals, motivations, concepts) in writing will get you far. Often in artistic proposals or applications, you are being judged simultaneously on your previous work and the next idea you have -- if you can make clear connections between your past work and the work you're hoping to do, it makes your chances that much better.

8. When did you start working with Maryanna Lachman? How has that changed the ways in which you approach/make music?

I met Maryanna after moving to Oakland, Calif., to study at Mills College in 2013. Through working together in a variety of formats (including numerous projects with our other collaborators who will join us at Beloit to perform Snake Talk -- Elizabeth Ardent, Abby Crain, and Mara Madrona), we realized we share quite similar interests, but also somewhat divergent aesthetics. Therefore I think our collaborations take on a variety of strikingly different approaches from project to project. Our first larger project together was a durational video piece for up to three screens and up to 12 speakers that runs for an infinite length! The next project we worked on after that was a series of songs about memory and environmental associations for piano, vocals, and synthesizers. So, the nice part about this process is that we're not tied to any one mode of working: I have a movement background as well, having performed for a number of years with Chicago-based  performance ensemble ATOM-r, and Maryanna has a vested interest in sound, especially in relation to the performance of text and amplification. It's very interesting as well to work in this way because Maryanna, for instance, has a very different approach to sound than I normally have: working with her changes my sonic sensibilities to some extent, but also constantly makes me more aware of my performativity -- how I'm performing and why. This is not a skill/focus that is normally taught in music education.

9. What are three essential artists for people interested in listening to/learning more about electronic music?


Maryanne Amacher: A composer whose works and physiological/theoretical research is immensely important to my own work. Her ideas are absolutely groundbreaking, but unfortunately due to a variety of circumstances, her work is hard to find and very little of her writings or recordings have been published. I've been fortunate enough to work with her archive (and I've been teaching about her work here at Beloit), and I would highly recommend anyone engaging with the history of electronic music to look into her work.

Black Quantum Futurism: An artistic and literary collective (Camae Defstar + Rasheedah Phillips) from Philadelphia who are producing some really compelling work sonically, as well as within the sphere of activism in marginalized communities. I think BQF collective represents an essential trajectory of electronic music in that addresses its serious history of determination by white supremacy, colonialism, and patriarchy. BQF prompt us to look back in history to re-discover both innovators of electronic music who were excluded from the canon, as well as to investigate ways in which communities of color and non-male composers/performers were denied access to institutions from the outset.

Kaija Saariaho: Saariaho is a Finnish composer whose works articulate some of my favorite aspects of electro-acoustic music (music created by acoustic means, but augmented by electronics or electronic processing). I love her work because it's so precise and exacting -- to me it represents the high level of sonorous detail and elegant subtlety that electronic music can offer. The scale at which she works always impresses me -- she produces work for everything from solo instruments with electronics, to full orchestras and operas, yet all possessing the same level of precision and quality. The sound worlds she creates are really just stunning.

(Of course as a disclaimer, the world of 'electronic music' is growing so rapidly, that this is really just a small, small subset of three different areas that I'm particularly interested in)

10. What inspires you right now?

What really inspires me at this moment is the wealth of research (artistic and academic) having to do with re-thinking and re-negotiating the space of the human on Earth. The environmentally detrimental effects of a lot of the structural elements of western society, but at the same time, some of the really intriguing propositions for changing ways in which we engage with environment. From climate justice initiatives to airborne art projects, I'm fascinated and inspired by projects that are trying to imbue us with a new cultural, societal, and economic sensitivities towards coming into more intimate relationships with environments and ecologies.