Some artists look at a tree and ponder what they could make out of that wood.
The students in Hans Tutschku's classes at Harvard University listen to a tree and ponder what music they can make out of the sounds the trees make.
Tutschku is the director of the Harvard University Studio for Electroacoustic Composition, a kind of Willy Wonka factory of odd noises and digitally constructed sounds.
For the uninitiated, the musical compositions Tutschku's students produce may sound a bit like the soundtrack of a light saber battle in a "Star Wars" movie.
But he says the production of those sounds teaches students critical lessons about taking risks and hearing the world differently.
"It's not about just randomly recording some klings and clongs and then magically in the computer trying to put them together make something interesting out of it," Tutschku said during a recent interview in his office.
The students begin with an idea for a short story, but the focus is on the sounds that story might make. For instance, he said, if the story is about a woman walking, never mind the color of her jacket — focus instead on the rhythmic tapping her shoes make on the pavement. The students record sounds that evoke the ideas they are trying to present in their stories, and then feed those recordings through a variety of software and processors to transform the sounds into a musical composition that represents their story.
He calls it "cinema for the ears."
But transforming sounds is only part of the studio's project. Students are often transformed by the process as well, Tutschku said.
"For me, it's not to make them composers of this type of music," he said. "I've had students from economics and from English and from philosophy ... a lot of Harvard graduates have taken this course across all kinds of fields, and they get back a couple of years later [and] send me a little email and saying, 'Oh, I'm still thinking about this class.'
"It changed their way of listening. And that is really what a huge part of that course is, about talking about how we listen to things."
Reuben Stern, a Harvard senior, confirmed that this was a key lesson of his studies with Tutschku.
"One of the things that Hans talks about is that sounds have meaning,” Stern said. If you know you are listening to a piano, you carry with you a "bias" of what a piano is supposed to sound like. "We learn to work with sounds that are unrecognizable," so the audience “can focus on the sounds themselves, as they are.”
Stern, a math major and music minor who is also the musical director of the student-run Bach Society Orchestra, said the techniques Tutschku teaches also require students to rethink the concept of time in a musical piece.
"Especially when your music doesn’t have steady beats, it becomes very important to think about how the audience perceives time,” Stern said. The composer needs to keep the audience focused on the progress of the music, not checking their watches.
Tutschku, 53, was first exposed to electronic music in Germany in his teens and it was "almost like an awakening," he said. He played piano as a child — his parents were both musicians — but he saw himself as "someone who reproduces compositions that have been composed a couple of hundred years ago." With electronic music, "I finally saw, 'Wow, I can actually invent something. There is kind of a permission here for me to do things we have not heard yet.'"
Of course, for both his students and the audience, Tutschku said he recognizes these sounds may take some getting used to, like the food in a foreign country.
"We go on a journey," he said. "So if you go to a different country ... try what they have on their plate. You might like it, you might not like it, but that is actually the excitement of going somewhere else. Otherwise, stay at home."
For those seeking to sample this unique musical menu, the Harvard studio hosts free public performances of student compositions twice a year.