When Daniel Grabois opens EARS to the public Friday night, there could be a line out the door.
EARS stands for “Electro-Acoustic Research Space,” a new resource at UW-Madison for student musicians, scholars and innovators. Its cutting-edge electronic equipment is meant to dare a new generation to exploit music’s limitless potential — to invent, experiment and explore new ways of making sound and art.
“This world is more familiar to the young people than it is to older people,” said Grabois, who is assistant professor of horn at the university and the driving force behind EARS, which will host a public open house at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
“So what a great case of maybe our young people teaching us about music, instead of us teaching them about music.”
EARS is set in a former classroom inside the Mosse Humanities Building at 455 N. Park St., home to the university’s Mead Witter School of Music. The room, while small, is fortuitously located between an external wall of the building on one side and a series of closets on the other — meaning it will be hard to bother others practicing in the music department, no matter what the volume. Downstairs from EARS, Grabois notes, are the percussion practice rooms.
The walls inside the EARS studio are painted deep red and gray. A comfortable couch, handed down from the history department, sits against one wall. Acoustic tiles cover the ceiling, but the middle of the carpeted room intentionally has been left empty — so that musicians of any kind can come in and set up, using the equipment that rings the rest of the room.
“If they want the keyboard, it gets brought out. Everything will be on cables long enough that they can move it out” to the center of the room, said Grabois.
“If they want the theremin, they can move it out. If they want some of this (electronic) percussion they can use it. And then everything gets pushed back when the rehearsal is over.”
Musicians can try out the Moog synthesizer with touch pad. The two 32-channel mixing boards. The Bose tower speakers with concert-hall clarity.
They can access EARS’ sophisticated software to edit their recordings, or create unique compositions using a collaborative music synthesizer called a Reactable.
“One of the amazing things that you can do here is plug your own instrument in and listen to how it can be transformed,” said Grabois (pronounced “grah-BOY.”)
EARS is outfitted with equipment purchased with a $161,121 research grant from the UW-Madison Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, with funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF.
WARF grants are most often associated with scientific research, making the grant Grabois sought all the more interesting, said Susan Cook, director of the university’s School of Music.
People usually “don’t think of it for outfitting an electronic music studio, with mixers and speakers and microphones and these incredible instruments that just about make all sounds possible,” she said.
EARS brings UW-Madison into the company of other major universities that offer training in electro-acoustic music. Indiana University has its Center for Electronic and Computer Music; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has its Experimental Music Studios. New York University recently opened a lavish facilty dedicated to music technology, Grabois said.
“We’re a university and we should really be exploring the edge of contemporary music,” said Grabois, who is helping create UW-Madison’s first electro-acoustic composition minor.
“This is something that emerged out of the world of popular music and has been slow to come into the world of higher education, but now it’s coming.” Even in the state that gave the world electric guitar pioneer Les Paul, UW-Madison’s last purchase of electro-acoustic music equipment was in the 1980s, he said.
With the help of EARS’ equipment, Grabois and UW trombone professor Mark Hetzler plan to revive an experimental student music ensemble called $2 Broom. Grabois hopes to create more works like his 2016 CD “Air Names,” recorded using Ableton Live, a software package that helps turn any acoustic instrument, like the horn, into an electro-acoustic instrument. Other faculty also are eager to see what the space has to offer, he said.
Before he came to UW-Madison six years ago, Grabois was chair of contemporary performance at the Manhattan School of Music.
“It’s a really cool program, and it attracted the kinds of people that I had worked with for 25 years in New York as professionals — people who were into all kinds of contemporary music,” he said.
“Electro-acoustic music was invented by rock and roll musicians when they plugged in their guitars, and it went on from there,” he said. “In particular, Radiohead is a band that has really run with this kind of equipment and been very creative with it. When I got to UW, I thought, ‘This is a research area that I want to explore.’”
When he spotted news of the WARF 2020 grant, “I thought, ‘Nothing that we use in this particular area of music is expensive on the order of, say, an electron microscope, because that’s the sort of thing (WARF) is used to funding,’” he said.
“I didn’t need anything that costs three quarters of a million dollars, but I do need a ton of pieces of equipment, and they add up to something.”
Before applying for the WARF grant, Grabois started polling colleagues in the music department and tapped experts at other universities with electro-acoustic programs for ideas.
“From all of these people I put together a dream list of what I would like to have in here, and then I just went online and looked at the price of everything, and it came to $161,121 — a figure which is burned into my brain,” he said.
After getting a 2020 WARF grant for that exact amount, Grabois put his equipment requests out for bid. Some of the lowest bids came from Madison-based Full Compass, so about half of EARS’ equipment comes from that local company.
EARS is a lab for experimentation, not a recording studio. But approved users will be able to check out its equipment to use in better recording spaces — such as the university’s Mills Concert Hall or acoustically rich local churches.
Grabois also hopes to host a monthly open house for the public, where anyone can bring an instrument or just their curiosity into the studio and experiment.
That outreach effort kicks off with Friday’s grand opening. Grabois will demonstrate some of EARS’ technology, and plans to keep the room open that evening as long as interest demands.
So how much potential does EARS hold?
“Here’s how I like to answer” that question, Grabois said.
“Somebody buys a computer. And you say, ‘How is it going to be used?’ And the answer is, ‘Well, this computer does so much, that anybody who has anything that needs computing can use this computer to do it.’
“This room has so much equipment that is so flexible and versatile, that somebody could borrow equipment to record a Beethoven string quartet,” he said. “Somebody could borrow equipment to perform a piece with a solo instrument and tape. Somebody could come in and improvise and use the synthesizer. A group could come in and have a rock band in here. It is purposely designed to be flexible and not to do one thing.”