Circuit boards on table tops. Electronic parts in multitudinous bins. Control pedals on the floor, its carpeting long unchanged nor, apparently, even vacuumed. Rolls of wire everywhere, but also the tools to assemble it all, to turn a chaos of components into a creative cohesion.
This workplace is in a small, nondescript one-story structure just off Alexander Road. It so much resembles a laboratory in a 1950s sci-fi film that a visitor half expects a robot to rise from the clutter and offer greetings in a polite metallic voice.
But the sole occupant is Jeff Snyder, musician, inventor, and director of electronic music at Princeton University and the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk). He’s quite human, tall and lanky with brown eyes and hair, an open manner, and ready smile, looking much younger than his 40 years in black jeans, a mustard-color crew-neck sweater, and incisive yellow Saucony running shoes.
“I’m messy and take up a lot of space,” he says cheerfully. “I’m not a person anyone would want to share an office with.”
But numerous Princeton students, colleagues, and audiences beyond campus happily share his music and research. Snyder not only has tremendous artistic and technological gifts, he embodies a marvelous melding of innovation with tradition, a seeming contradiction that also characterizes the university’s historic role in the vanguard of electronic music.
And tradition informed by innovation also characterizes one of Snyder’s most recent projects: the album “The Best of Your Lies” by his alter ego, Owen Lake & the Tragic Loves. It’s straight, classic country honky tonk infused with, yes, that’s right, electronic music.
A transplanted Midwesterner, Snyder was initially hired at Princeton in 2010 after a job search for a recording studio technician and computer music assistant. It was just prior to his successfully completing doctorate work at Columbia. Since then Snyder’s responsibilities have shifted and progressed.
“Princeton’s got a huge history of electronic music,” he says. “It’s great to be part of that now.”
One of the first American academic initiatives in electronic music was the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, set up in the 1950s by composer/professor Milton Babbitt of Princeton along with several colleagues at Columbia (where the original center was physically located.)
“That was very influential, and Princeton’s been influential since then,” Snyder says, noting that recordings created at the center are available today on CD or as downloads, early classics of the comparatively young field of electronic music.
“As far as electronic music at Princeton, what that means changes constantly with the students here, what people are interested in.”
“That history continues through the 1960s with Babbitt doing a lot of interesting music,” Snyder says. “In the ’80s it turned specifically to computer-related music creation, away from what had been [primarily] computer control of analog electronics and other synthesis techniques. It shifted a bit because computers became powerful enough.”
In the 1990s electronic music at Princeton benefited from Dan Trueman’s arrival in the music department. In 2005 Trueman co-founded the Princeton Laptop Orchestra with computer scientist Perry Cook. PLOrk presented its first concert the following year.
Rebecca Fiebrink, a former graduate student of Cook’s, took over PLOrk in 2010, the year Snyder arrived at Princeton. It was a heady if hectic time for Snyder: he completed and defended his Columbia doctoral work while he was still settling in at Princeton. He received a doctorate with distinction in music composition in 2011.
As part of his new duties Snyder concentrated on the music side of PLOrk. Fiebrink handled the computer aspects until she moved on from Princeton. By this time Trueman and Cook were focusing on their core research and teaching, so Snyder was left in sole charge of PLOrk.
“Which was nice,” he says, “because I could work more on ‘What should electronic music mean here at Princeton?’ I was able to shape that and let the students shape it to see where they want to go.”
And where is electronic music going at Princeton and elsewhere? “Right now I feel electronic music has spread so much, there are so many different things that fall under electronic music,” Snyder says. “As far as electronic music at Princeton goes, what that means changes constantly with the students here, what people are interested in.”
So not surprisingly much of his teaching is now student-driven. Princeton undergrads typically arrive needing not introductory instruction or survey courses, but input and guidance on existing project interests.
For example, a student might be interested in networking mobile devices to allow an audience to interact with a live stage performance of musicians. (One of Snyder’s students developed such a system called “Constellation.”) Another student might want to analyze a video signal from a camera and turn it into audio or turn other data into sound.
“There are tons of different directions,” Snyder says. Some of these have included the Birl (described as “an electronic wind instrument based on an artificial neural network parameter mapping structure”) and a Mobile Device Marching Band (defined as “any ensemble utilizing mobile computation that can travel as it performs, with the performance being independent of its location”).
“Luckily I’m pretty good at learning new things,” Snyder says. “In my experience, technology is incremental. People imagine it as this phenomenon of paradigm shifts. Technology evolves. It doesn’t come out of nowhere.”
And his own personal research directions? “I’m really interested in creating electronic musical instruments,” he reports. “Today a computer can create basically any sound that you want it to make. But it’s not necessarily the most expressive interface. It’s not the most beautiful interface. And it’s not tactile.”
Snyder has invented and marketed the Manta, a touch-sensitive music controller whose hexagonal layout resembles a cross between a honeycomb cross-section and an air filter, but there’s beauty and practicality in its design. For example, its frame is specifically made not of plastic but of wood. “You perform differently on wood,” he says, because of wood’s more touch-friendly qualities. The 200-some purchasers of the Manta seem to agree.
“No one will listen a record and say, ‘Oh, that’s the Manta’ because it doesn’t have its own sound.” Which is perfectly fine because Snyder’s intention was to create an electronic music interface, not a new instrument. But, he continues, “Lately I’ve been working toward making instruments that have their own sound and integrate the audio production into the instrument itself.”
These include an electric bass guitar that has the look, size, and — importantly — the feel of the familiar rock and country band instrument, but whose sounds are created with digital principles and interfaces.
And he has the adventurous “brass” to be innovating in brass — specifically a serious musical and academic interest in the trombone. As he kneels on the floor, assembling and explaining his digital interface for slide trombone, on the wall above him is an academic conference poster by Snyder and collaborators: “The Feedback Trombone: Controlling Feedback in Brass Instruments.”
Snyder continues to produce notable albums of electronic music that meld sensibilities old and new. The title track of “Concerning The Nature of Things,” (also released in late 2018), emphasizes modality over tonality, with a harmonium-like sound characteristic of the “Early Music” that bridged the Medieval with the Baroque periods. But the album shifts effortlessly to selections with 1960s-style electronic music syncopations. It’s both soothing and energizing and instantly recognizable as being from a distinct musical genre.
Another Snyder album, “Sunspots” (released in 2018), consists of four 18-minute-plus tracks whose sweet or searing swoops, perky syncopations, and occasional ominous thumps, sizzles, and discords immediately bring to mind the “realizations” of pioneering electronic music composers.
“It’s a retro album,” Snyder says, when this is pointed out to him. “It’s my response to 1960s and ’70s experimental music.” In fact, he adds, “I created it on a system from the 1960s.”
Snyder grew up in a semi-suburban area of Minnesota, one of two children of a math and science teacher mom and an electrical engineer father. His sister also went into science and technology-related work as a statistician.
He graduated in 2001 from the University of Wisconsin with a B.A. in music composition. He then lived for a time in Chicago and played electric guitar in an ensemble with his sister and her husband. (“My brother-in-law had played in my rock band when we were in high school together. That’s how she met him!”) He describes it as “kind of a punk band” that played covers of 1980s video game songs and tunes.
“It was stuff from the ’80s that we grew up on, Apple, Commodore, and Nintendo game systems,” he says. And the trio “had an audience that was really excited to hear that kind of music.”
It was an invaluable experience as an “arrangement project [in which] I figured out a way to transfer music from one medium to another.” But, he says, “I actually don’t know any of the new video game music. I’m really into the older stuff.”
No surprise, then, that Snyder is really into other older stuff, namely the “classic country” sound of 1960s and ’70s Nashville music — arranging it to include experimental electronic music elements, even to the point of creating a performance avatar “Owen Lake & the Tragic Loves.”
Owen is Snyder’s middle name, Lake was the street where he grew up. The song “Tragic Love,” written and performed by early bluegrass performers the Stanley Brothers, was a favorite of his.
He derived the Owen Lake concept specifically from 1960s and ’70s country and western, music that had evolved from earlier “hillbilly” and “Texas swing” roots. Originally dubbed “honky tonk” (after the bars in which it was popular for dancing and juke box listening), it featured pedal-steel slide guitars, by turns soaring or mournful, and palpably emotional but stoically delivered vocals. Today it’s widely and admiringly known as “classic country,” a distinct genre
And the innovation of Snyder aka Lake? To subtly add the sounds, rhythms, and shadings of modern electronic music to this classic country mode, perhaps creating a new sub-genre.
And why not? In its own way the pedal-style guitar was as revolutionary in its impact on country — aesthetically and technologically — as the pipe organ was in early baroque music. “The conception that innovation doesn’t combine well with [established] genres doesn’t make sense to me,” he says.
But it’s done with affection and, best of all, not a straw of satire in this musical haystack. Snyder has a fine country voice, smooth and sincere, expressing controlled heartache, with none of the boorish country song parodies.
Nor is there avant garde excess. Early on he decided against extensive use of vocoding, a program which produces the familiar synthesized robotic-style voice, deciding it would mar rather than modernize the music.
Perhaps the title was prophetic: Snyder continued playing shows with a live band (members of the Tragic Loves have included players with professional country experience). One gig about six years ago was attended by his future wife, writer Anica Mrose Rissi.
Anica’s father was a doctor, her mother a violin teacher. Her country roots were more northern than Jeff’s but more rural: She grew up on Deer Isle, off the coast of Maine. (“Meet children’s author Anica Mrose Rissi and her inspirational dog,” The Echo, September, 2017)
The new Owen Lake album, “The Best of Your Lies,” was released at the end of last year. Although it features reinterpreted cover versions of songs by major country stars, two numbers — the title track plus “Wicked Heart” — are originals, music by Snyder, lyrics by Rissi. In the best country music tradition, the songs were composed during long car drives, though not on late night tour gig jumps but summer trips to Deer Isle.
Also in the best country music tradition, “The Best of Your Lies” has a refrain that contains a strong thematic song “hook”: The singer — knowing that his wife is cheating — silently pleads that she’ll have both her clothes and her story on straight when she gets home late that night:
If you can’t give me the best of your love / Give me the best of your lies …
And how has the Owen Lake country/electronic fusion concept gone over? Snyder sighs: “All the reviews seem to have the same refrain.”
A reviewer for Soundblab.com expressed a common critical outlook, writing that “neither pure country nor club beat lovers will jump for joy over this one. They most probably want their stuff pure and unadulterated,” but then hastening to add: “Personally, I love this stuff and think Lake is onto something.”
Marketing has faced a similar conundrum. “I make experimental music. I’m not making money off it,” says Snyder. “The music industry is very defused. I merely make the records and hope a few people like it.” (Right now, his main online sales outlet are at owenlakeandthetragicloves.bandcamp.com and jeffsnyder.bandcamp.com, but the Princeton Record Exchange will be selling his albums in both CD and vinyl LP formats.)
Fortunately, Snyder’s pioneering foray into electro-computer-ified country and his embrace of retro 1960s electronic realization stylings aren’t likely to corrode his avant garde music bona fides. In addition to PLOrk, he is a member of Sideband, a smaller laptop ensemble; exclusiveOr, an experimental electronic duo; the Federico Ughi Quartet jazz group; and the Mizries, an “improvisatory noise trio.”
If anything, his music and design work will retain the delightful contradictions of cutting-edge traditionalism.
“I really like thinking about stuff that came before,” he says, smiling with digital precision and analog warmth, “and figuring out what sort of twist I can make on it.”
PLOrk’s spring concert featuring Rage Thormbones, Taplin Auditorium, Fine Hall, Princeton University. Saturday, April 20, 8 p.m. Free.