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Signal Flow

Graduate student Chin-chin Hsu dances in the center of a brass ensemble, stretching, spinning, swooping, and swaying, her movements both chaotic and controlled. To the left, David Katz sits at a typewriter, adding to the sporadic melody with the thwack and ding of typewriter keys. Farther right a string ensemble sits silently, instruments in hand. All eyes adhere to Hsu’s improvised movements.

This was the beginning of graduate student Mateo Lugo’s performance “Echo reChord,” Friday March 7, as part of the Signal Flow Festival, an annual event to present graduate students’ work in music and sound art.

Lugo’s Echo reChord was one of 14 performances in the Signal Flow Festival, hosted by the Center for Contemporary Music and the music department at Mills. The festival included four nights of live student performance as well as three installations in various spaces around campus.

For many students like Lugo, the festival marks the fruition of several years’ work.

“This is a milestone marker. These concerts represent two years worth of graduate work,” Ensemble Director Molly Holm said. “I mean, they’re putting their signature on two years of work here. All their professors are here, it’s a significant concert.”

Lugo’s piece was specifically organized around the central dancer; the action of everyone else on stage was a reflection of her movements.

“The dancer is in the middle and she is improvising her dance in a very specific way. She has to be the leader,” Lugo said. “The brass and the piano, they’re task is to play exactly what she is doing, trying to make their sounds into her movements as quickly as possible without thinking. So that is the first ripple.”

While Hsu was dancing, Katz expressed his dance through words. Lugo had instructed Katz to write about Hsu’s limbs for 2-3 minutes, the center of her body for 2-3 minutes, then the space of her body for 2-3 minutes. At a pause in the performance, following the brass ensemble and dance, Katz stood center stage and read the piece he had written to the audience.

“He is identifying himself as much as possible with the dancer, just like what the other musicians are doing,” Lugo said. “They are not making artistic musical choices — I am not asking them to be tasteful. I am asking them to put all that aside and play from a gut reaction.”

During Hsu’s dance, the string ensemble waited quietly. Unapparent to the viewer, the string players were watching the dance intently, creating scores based on Hsu’s movements. Following Katz’s reading, the strings played the scores they had written during the dance, based on Hsu’s movements.

“The whole first half they are not playing, they are just making their scores depending on what she does,” Lugo said. “I told them you have to choose a movement that you don’t know Chin-chin is going to do. One of the violin players chose to note whenever her hands go above her head. He sees what note that is and writes it on the score.”

Lugo has worked intermittently with Echo reChord for several years, but said Signal Flow was the opportunity he had been waiting for to revisit the piece.

“I’ve always wanted to do it again and make it better, and now this was the chance,” Lugo said after the performance. “I think there is something so important in showing your work in an environment that’s big enough and open enough. After that night I felt that something had switched, that I had learned something.”

In addition to Lugo’s piece, Friday’s event included Crystal Pascucci’s “Pointalization,” Katherine McDonald’s “Complicated Matters,” Taurin Barrera’s “Metaverse” and Madalyn Merkey’s “Projects by Enore Zaffiri (1968).” The pieces varied drastically in style and composition.

Professor John Bischoff, who teaches electronic music and has been full-time at Mills since 2007, responded positively to the performances on Friday, some of which were the works of his students.

“In general, I’m very inspired by the work I’ve seen students do. There’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” Bischoff said. “They’re all working together to produce these concerts and there’s a lot of diversity in the pieces. To see the range of their work and to see it come to fruition is inspiring.”

Flier for the Signal Flow concert. (Terrapin Frazier)
Flier for the Signal Flow concert. (Terrapin Frazier)