Composition student Max Krien plays with handbuilt instruments, production technology
For music composition major Max Krien ’23, electronic music is not confined to the digital sphere. On the evening of March 5, Krien’s recital served as a culmination of his work in electronic music and handbuilt instruments throughout his four years in the Lewis & Clark music department. The performance featured, among other creative audio-production experiments, sound generated by a handheld glowing sphere christened ORBI.
“Music of N(0) Consequence” was a sensory delight. Each song created a newly stimulating and complex sonic landscape to sink into. Throughout the show, Krien switched between playing an acoustic and a handbuilt electric guitar, a wooden flute, and manipulating his synthezier’s switchboard in real time.
A string trio, composed of violinist Noam Jacobs ’22, violist Kalea Kaui ’23 and cellist Kate Koller, joined Krien onstage for part of the performance. During the string pieces, Krien controlled the electronic effects at his workstation while directing the players’ dynamics and articulation with hand gestures.
In a few songs, he picked up ORBI and rotated it slowly in his hands, creating swelling distortion, by turns crunchy and flowing. ORBI functions by modifying sound fed from Krien’s guitar to a synthesizer.
“The synthesizer is in turn controlled by another instrument: ORBI, a 3D-printed glowing sphere whose movement in space affects the modification of the guitar’s sound,” Krien wrote in the program notes.
The piece Gravity provided a unique twist on the idea of music notation for traditional instruments by allowing the string trio to improvise using a given sequence of notes.
“These notes are their ‘centers of gravity,’ around which they are free to oscillate and improvise within specified boundaries. The piece itself orbits harmonically around a central, ever-changing drone. The result is a swirling, wavelike texture that is at once static and dynamic,” the program notes said.
Krien’s interest in electronic music began in high school, when he started using online software because it was the most accessible way to experiment with composition.
“It wasn’t originally like, ‘Oh, yeah, I want to make electronic music, but rather, the tools for electronic music are more accessible than the kind of knowledge that you acquire in an institutional music program,” Krien said.
His father is a carpenter, meaning Krien has also been exposed to the art of building and hands-on craft since childhood. He repeatedly expressed appreciation for this experience.
“My dad is a carpenter back in Santa Fe,” Krien said. “So I grew up having access to the opportunity to build stuff, which I was really privileged to have had. And he’s also of a musical bent so he and I, when I was little, built some instruments here and there, whatever was easy.”
In college, Krien initially turned to his background of building out of circumstance and necessity.
“Since then,” Krien laughed, “it has mostly grown out of me being really cheap. Like, ‘I can’t afford to buy a new guitar, but I really want something that is better than what I have.’”
With time, this introduction to handbuilt instruments would become an essential aspect of Krien’s creative process. He explained the importance to him of blending elements of electronic music with tangible sonic tools.
“The digital computer domain is amazing. There’s so much that you can do with that, that you couldn’t do otherwise. But it’s highly, highly abstract,” Krien said. “And for some people like myself, it can be really difficult to exist in that really abstract space and still make something that’s emotionally interesting or impactful. Building stuff has been kind of the way out.”
The practical boundaries created by tangible elements, whether technological experiments or actual hands-on building, prevent him from becoming overwhelmed and promote creativity.
“I think it’s great to have something that exists that is subject to particular parameters, like you only have a certain number of options for this physical thing,” Krien said. “It’s not like the infinitude of things that you can do in a computer. Those limitations are really, really important to me.”
Since coming to LC, Krien has learned to create music in many new ways, such as writing for orchestra in composition class and working with the school’s non-western music ensembles. He included the string trio in this performance partly in order to honor and demonstrate this work in the domain of live concert music. Writing for real people to play, he said, has been a unique challenge.
“The process for most of those pieces was basically writing everything else except for the string parts, creating all the electronic textures for all those pieces and then using sampled string instruments to create a mockup in the computer and then moving into notation and solidifying things there,” Krien said. “And since then, it’s been a back and forth process of talking to the players, things like ‘this doesn’t quite work,’ or ‘it would be easier if (you) put it this way.’ Those are things that are hard to know if you’re not playing on that instrument.”
Krien strives to let the instruments that he is writing for inform his practice.
“The ethos behind the whole concert is (that) all of these pieces are the things that developed out of the instruments that I was working on or playing with at that time,” he said.
In addition, Krien took on a computer science minor, which he said has been really helpful. The minor has inspired him to delve into innovative methods in electronic production using various tools of modern technology and programming which he has been exposed to in his classes, and has given him practical skills to do so.
“I’m definitely the least smart person in the room in those classes,” Krien said. “But I’ve managed to put together enough to be useful.”
In a network security class, for example, despite thinking that cybersecurity was not immediately related to his work, he ended up creating a program which acted as an instrument by sonifying network traffic. In the AI class he is currently taking, he has been inspired to create a drawing tablet which processes audio using a machine learning method. Krien featured both of these “instruments,” as he calls them, in his concert.
Krien credited Instructor of Music, Acoustic Bass and Electric Bass, Director of Electronic Music and Jazz Studies Jeffrey Leonard as a critical mentor who has guided his work in the medium throughout his time in the program.
“The biggest thing for me being in this department was meeting a mentor who’s really pushed me and helped me get through the whole thing,” Krien said. “Jeff Leonard … is just the most incredible human. I probably wouldn’t be graduating if it weren’t for him.” Krien has a YouTube channel under his name and an Instagram account @krien.bean where interested readers can find his musical projects.