Bandcamp Album of the Day, Raymond Cummings. "By turns mischievous, sinister, and soulful, Sunspots is a reminder that the synthesizer’s possibilities are endless. Recorded in Stockholm on a vintage Buchla, the double-LP debut from Jeff Snyder has a clever structure: Disc 1 lures the listener in with wigged-out, funhouse roughage before Disc 2 prescribes intensive, cranial massage therapy.
At the outset, the Princeton, NJ-based musician’s homemade sequencer eagerly twists and crimps the Buchla’s golden tones. “Sunspots IV” resembles an out-sound survey course, its Autechre-esque pocks, pops, and swoops next door to astringent, three-dimensional tonalities and bloodshot, klaxon chords. Blearier and more crepuscular, “Sunspots V” corrals its movements into a collective, minimalist simmer.
On Sunspots’s back-end, Snyder marshals his improvisational powers. “Sunspots VIII” is broiling psychedelia, the ringing pitch it builds to suggest hula-hoops circulating like insects in slow motion. Meanwhile, closer “Sunspots IX” layers bass chords to discordant distraction; the elongated result—a generative, thrumming brownout drone, restless, endless, somehow obscene—feels so hideously wrong that, ultimately, it’s marvelously right."
The Vinyl District, Joseph Neff. "NEW RELEASE PICKS: Jeff Snyder, Sunspots (Carrier) Composer, improviser, instrument-designer, holder of a Music Composition doctorate from Columbia, and Director of Electronic Music at Princeton, Snyder has worked in a variety of groups, and after numerous appearances on comps this is his debut album, offered on 2LP in a gatefold sleeve and as a digital DL in both stereo and quadrophonic versions. Using a 1970s Buchla synth controlled by his Snyderphonics JD-1 keyboard/sequencer, the four side-long 18-minute pieces recall the heyday of avant-garde electronic music, but without the bleep-and-bloop that sometimes dates those perfectly fine records. Instead, there’s a congruence to later experimental electronic stuff, so fans of Pan Sonic, Matmos, and Merzbow should investigate. A major work. A"
Heavy Blog Is Heavy, Scott Murphy. "Blanket genre detractors are truly the worst kind of music listeners. While I myself have openly discussed my general disinterest in genres like country and power metal, it’s completely different, and decidedly more ignorant, when someone writes of the entirety of one style of music based on pre-conceived (and often false) notions about the composition process. For no genre is this truer than with electronic music; we’ve all heard rockists bemoan the lack of guitars and claim that nearly any electronic track is merely a button push away from being composed and completed. It’s safe to say these people have never seen a DAW or synth in action, as anyone’s first encounter with the actual electronic music process has realized just how endless the possibilities are, and how challenging it is to narrow those possibilities into a worthwhile piece of art. It may be effortless to plunk away at some keys or click some presets from a drop-down menu, but that level of input hardly matches the quality derived from true, careful mastery of how electronics work.
When it comes to music that exemplifies this fact, albums like Sunspots are the first to come to mind. Armed with nothing but 1970s Buchla synthesizer, a self-made keyboard/sequencer and a fierce improvisational spirit, composer Jeff Snyder produces four 18-minute tracks that exude electronic music’s best qualities. Sunspots never wavers from Snyder’s exploratory, boundless vision, filling nearly an hour of music with four distinct movements within a complete narrative. Snyder’s improvisations fall somewhere between Autechre, Suicide and David Toop, embracing the ethos of electroacoustic composition and minimal synth performance while pursuing a unique goal all its own. Elements from the full gamut of electronic music’s repertoire are on full display as Snyder synthesizes sounds both singular and collective in nature. The album’s liberated, improvisational spirit remains consistent, but as each track unravels, Snyder intuitively weaves a thread that ties the proceedings together. It’s almost as if the listener is being exposed to an epic outlining the turmoil, tragedy and eventual triumph of machines in a digital world.
There’s an emotive language at play here, elevating an already impressive, rich musical tapestry to create poignant soundscapes of origins both man and machine. It takes a brilliant mind to guide improvisations of this caliber, and the fact this is Snyder’s solo debut only makes his accomplishments on Sunspots that much more impressive. This is a near-flawless testament to the power of electronic music, and proof of much finesse and innate creativity is required to craft albums worth placing in the genre’s pantheon of essential releases. Sunspots admittedly offers a challenging display of cerebral synthetic dexterity, and the roughly hour-long runtime might be a deterrent for some. But Snyder’s poise and mastery of his instruments produce a truly engrossing listen from start to finish, and by the time the final track concludes, the only thought on listeners’ minds will be deep self-inquiry about what just transpired. This is electronic music to lose oneself in; a timeless ode to the power of effective sonic exploration."
The Answer is in the Beat, Paul Simpson. "Jeff Snyder recorded this lengthy album of Buchla improvisations at ElektronMusikStudion in Stockholm, using a self-created controller. The first half sounds like classic eerie synth music (Subotnick, The Forbidden Planet, et al), all slowly moving shapes, colors, and phases, acidic burbles, and lengthy ominous pauses. “Sunspots IV” gets a bit hyperactive towards its midsection, with some heavy growls around the third movement and some more rapidly flashing, panic-warnings around the fifth. “Sunspots V” has moments of dread akin to Wolf Eyes (especially their recent work), and lots of suspense. Very slow moving, very creepy. The last two pieces are 18-minute drones; no sudden stops or explosions, just constant waves which sometimes seem to interact and produce chemical reactions. “Sunspots IX” is far more singular, and would be calming if it didn’t seem somewhat distressed. Listen from a distance or a low volume and it might just sound like two or three keys being pressed over and over again. However, listen closely and there’s plenty of subtle, sublime trickery going on."
Bandcamp Best of Contemporary Classical, Peter Margasek.
"Jeff Snyder seems to happily occupy a liminal space between composition and improvisation. He works with electronics, creating otherworldly, unwieldy sounds that he’s applied to countless, disparate contexts, from free jazz groups to electro-country music. He’s composed works for groups like Wet Ink Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble, and Mivos Quartet. On his first album under his own name, on the eclectic new music label he co-founded, he turns to an old Buchla 200 Series synthesizer housed in Stockholm’s legendary Elektronmusikstudion (EMS) to create a multi-movement work shaped by his own Snyderphonics JD-1 controller, which lends a bit of order to a synthesizer renown for its unpredictability. The music is delightfully squirmy, squelchy, and full of surprises, as passages of blorpy rhythm and creeping melody corrode into shapeless, acidic noise. The use of unnamed effects and delay help Snyder make sense of the sounds, but as the piece evolves the pieces grow longer and longer. It’s as if his resistance to the compulsive charms of the Buchla weaken with time."
SciArt Magazine, Julia Buntaine. "Have you ever wanted to go beyond, and into, the surface of a painting? Sunspots is a virtual installation which plunges you into the middle of four different and ever changing aesthetic worlds. Inspired by the forces that govern the dark patches which temporarily appear in our actual Sun, the visuals and sounds in Sunspots are entirely generative, based on the user's behavior. In the true form of interactive art, the piece is inert until you enter. Ironically, once you're there you are totally immobile, only able to rotate your point of view as a floating head immersed in these psychedelic, evocative, and illusory environments. Created by Jeff Snyder and Drew Wallace, this installation went live January 26th, 2018, in tandem with Snyder's eponymous electronic music album."
The Guardian, John Lewis.
"Jeff Snyder and Federico Ughi’s album Duo is a fascinating mix of brutal beats and abstract synth explorations."
Badd Press Blog, Kevin Press.
"Jeff Snyder and Federico Ughi have been performing together for the better part of a decade. They’re both members of the Federico Ughi Quartet, Life Station and the Listening Group. This new recording is their first as a two-piece. The suitably titled Duo showcases both talents in a setting that deserves repeat performances.
Snyder plays a homemade analog synthesizer. His aggressive, sometimes combative style has a percussive quality that complements Ughi’s lively drumkit.
This is not to suggest that the two instruments form a perfect union. What makes Duo a great record is the way the acoustic and electronic performances often stand in contrast to one another.
We get this right off the top. “Useless Interposition” opens with a classic analog rhythm program, soon accompanied by one of Ughi’s most dynamic percussion efforts.
If you know nothing about the recording, the track hits you like a frantic noise puzzle. Could it really be just two players? Are all the beats acoustic? Is this jazz or something entirely new?
(The answers, by the way, are yes, no and entirely up to you.)
“Dancing at Two Weddings” is a telling song title. The two performances don’t so much as connect as they compete for the audience’s attention. That’s not a criticism.
It sets up a fascinating listening experience in which a pair of well-structured improvisations are presented side by side. Sometimes they relate, sometimes they don’t.
The album’s notes use phrases like “psychomusical connection” and “punk energy” which add to our understanding of intentions. But there is more to Snyder and Ughi’s debut as a two-piece.
This is a bravely discordant collection of new music. It is fun and exciting and entirely unhesitant. There’s also a good chance it’s like nothing else in your collection."
The Vinyl District, Joseph Neff.
"Snyder’s a composer, improviser, instrument-designer, and teacher; back in January his solo synth 2LP Sunspots received a new release pick and an A grade in this very column. On this (currently CD-digital only) follow-up, he teams with regular playing partner Ughi for a synth-electronics-drums excursion that’s nearly as spiff. Much of Sunspots is reminiscent of the early days of academe-based electronic invention, but Ughi’s presence steers this toward a ’70s New Music meets Avant Jazz zone, with big hunks bringing to mind one of those Paul Bley synth albums (that featured Han Bennink), but a whole lot better. However, “Bad Bishop” and “Useful Interposition” reveal Snyder’s penchant for post-Industrial sonic disruption, and that’s just swell."
The Answer is in the Beat, Paul Simpson
"Following a solo album of Buchla improvisations released earlier in the year, Jeff Snyder joins with drummer Federico Ughi on this album of robot free jazz. The rolling, tumbling, stop-start rhythms of improv jazz are present, but the horns, guitars, and other instruments are replaced by brittle analog synth tones, often heavy on fuzz and static. Much of the tracks are pretty freeform but also compact, with the two musicians having control over their outbursts and managing to be in something resembling sync with each other. “Consider Sacrifice” is a 15-minute sprawl, however, starting out largely quiet and sparse before erupting and showering sparks during the final third. “Bad Bishop” gets in some mean powerdrill riffing before melting into scrapes and buzzes. “Good Knight” is much hotter, with frenetic drums and laser-like synths which approach Sun Ra at his most electrified. “Attacks Aren’t Everything” is a short reflection with more shimmering synths which kind of warp and curdle, then “Should You Fianchetto?” is more of a direct attack (and even shorter). The album ends with the straightforward cold-gaze rumble of “Useful Interposition”."
U.S.1 Interview, Ross Amico
Giant swinging pendulum. Check. Colored lights through a glass-bottomed reflecting pool. Check. Spatially divided ensembles of brass, percussion, and cell phones. Check.
These are some of the ingredients that will go into Jeff Snyder’s “Wave Fanfare,” a specially commissioned work conceived for the inauguration of the new Lewis Center for the Arts and Department of Music at Princeton University. The multimedia event will be presented twice, on Friday and Saturday, October 6 and 7.
Original music will be performed on specially made electronic instruments designed by the composer and the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk) with the participation of So Percussion, the university’s ensemble-in-residence, and the Brooklyn-based TILT Brass Ensemble. Kinetic lighting, wave robotics, and rigging will all interact with the buildings themselves.
“We wanted to riff off of the architecture and think about what the architecture can inspire,” says Snyder, the university’s director of electronic music and a recipient of a 2017 New Jersey State Council on the Arts individual artist fellowship award in the category of music composition. “So I collaborated on this piece with Axel Kilian, who’s an architect, and Jane Cox, who’s a lighting designer, and the three of us put our heads together to try to figure out what we might be able to do that would really bounce off of the new building.”
Cox, a Tony Award nominee, is director of the university’s theater program. Kilian is an assistant professor at the school of architecture. Snyder also acknowledges the input of architect Ryan Luke Johns, who is a visiting lecturer. Located at the intersection of Alexander Road and University Place, the arts complex was designed by Steven Holl Architects. The three buildings — the Wallace Dance Building and Theater, the New Music Building, and the Arts Tower — house rehearsal, performance, and teaching spaces.
“The buildings are kind of joined together by this forum area, and then there’s a level above called the plaza,” Snyder says. “The plaza is basically outdoors. That’s the open sky area. There are some trees and there’s a reflecting pool. Then the forum is underneath that, and it’s between all the three different buildings. There are skylights that are underneath the pool, so that basically you get these cool patterns of light through the water on the floor of the forum. It was an architectural detail that was inspiring to us. We worked on this piece to try to accentuate and create something based on that. There are several different skylights inside this pool. We took the center one and decided to focus on that.”
Kilian designed a giant pendulum to hang above the pool, where it will swing back and forth metronomically, casting light through the water onto the performers below. It’s a theatrical effect, but it also acts as a guide of sorts for the performers, Snyder says.
“The pendulum is connected by ropes to the tops of the three buildings, literally tying them together. Then there’s a brass ensemble in the light of the pendulum, under the skylight. Members of the PLOrk ensemble are surrounding the audience, each underneath one of the other skylights, and they’ve got individual lights that they’re holding that point upwards that are controlled by the sounds they make. We’re trying to take the sound and the light and the motion and make it all connect.”
PLOrk, one of the first groups of its kind, was co-founded by Princeton professors Perry Cook and Dan Trueman (another 2017 State Council on the Arts award winner) in 2005. While the ensemble’s concerts in some respects emulate those of traditional instruments, the results are often radically transformed.
“We always take advantage of new technologies and get inspired by new stuff that’s come out, or by older concepts that haven’t really been applied to music before,” Snyder says. “A lot of the time that involves building new instruments for that piece, both in software and in hardware. There are no standard instruments, so we have to make them.”
Snyder became director of the ensemble in 2013. He was named the group’s co-director with his arrival at the university in 2010. “I think the fact that I build instruments was really attractive [to the university], because it’s basically necessary if you’re going to be in charge of one of these kinds of groups.”
In addition, the music department recently named Snyder director of electronic music, with an eye toward the creation of a certificate program. He joins the university’s choir, jazz, and orchestra directors as an associate director of the program in music performance. “It’s a nice bit of recognition of how important electronics are becoming in the world of music,” he says.
“I’m excited about the new building, since it’s the first time PLOrk has had its own space,” he says. “We’ve got a nice room, and we can leave our equipment set up instead of setting up and tearing down every rehearsal. The fact that we now have a room dedicated to live electronic music demonstrates a commitment on behalf of the music department to continuing Princeton’s leading role in the electronic music scene. Also the whole building is beautiful. The new Lee Rehearsal Room is breathtaking, and the whole forum space between the buildings is very inviting.”
For the opening weekend’s performances the musicians of PLOrk will move around the forum with speakers strapped to them, using mobile phones as instruments.
“So Percussion are also involved,” Snyder says. “The forum area is really huge, so we’re trying to figure out how to create something that feels like it belongs in a space that large, that takes advantage of it, as opposed to just being dwarfed by it. The percussion and the orchestra members are all far dispersed around the audience, aiming for a really spatial effect. It’s a site-specific composition, coming out of the space, rather than the other way around.”
The 15-minute work is partly composed and partly improvised.
“It’s not really improvisation in the sense of expressivity, that the musicians feel something and they go for it; it’s more improvisation in the sense of there’s a framework within which there are instructions for making sound. It’s like an algorithm describing a process, but it’s not as prescribed as what to do in what rhythm and what notes to play.”
The performances will be further distinguished by the debut of the Feedback Trombone, a new instrument invented by the composer.
Originally from Minnesota, Snyder earned his bachelor of arts in music composition degree from the University of Madison-Wisconsin. That was followed by a master of arts in music composition and doctor of musical arts in music composition (with distinction) from Columbia University. Both of his parents studied physics, and his father was an engineer. “I was able to actually get some help from him once I really started getting interested in the electrical engineering side of things, which was really nice,” Snyder says.
Even so, it was just the beginning, and Snyder says he was largely self-taught.
“I really come at this from the music side, rather than the tech side,” he says. “It combines engineering and the arts in an interesting way. Most of my training is on the arts side, on the music side, as a composer, but I was always really interested in electronics. I played electronic instruments since I was 14 or so. I got myself a little sampler so that I could record sounds and mess with them, and that was really fun. I’m 38, so in my teenage years it was starting to be possible to really edit on computers, which was really exciting for me. But I didn’t really learn much about the underlying engineering aspects of it — of how are these tools actually created, how would you building your own electronic instruments, that kind of stuff — until much later.”
He says he acquired those skills after he moved to New York City when he was in his 20s. Though he never had formal engineering training, he gravitated to some important mentors, including Douglas Repetto at Columbia University.
“He helped me out a lot in learning how to do circuitry and pointing me toward what I needed to know next, basically, as I taught myself. The way my knowledge has ended up accumulating, in common with a lot of people that are self-taught at something, I have really specialized knowledge in certain things, and then I have huge holes in my knowledge in anything that doesn’t actually really have anything to do with what I’ve needed to do yet. I have an interesting set of skills. Of course, there’s always new technology, new possibilities opening up, so it’s kind of like looking for what else you can learn, basically.”
In addition to his academic duties, Snyder is the proprietor of Snyderphonics, a small business through which he distributes his musical inventions. Its office is listed as the downtown Princeton home Snyder shares with his children’s author/editor wife, Anica Mrose Rissi.
“It’s an interesting intersection with my research stuff,” he says. “New musical instrument design is where a lot of my research effort goes. But I also believe that new musical instruments aren’t particularly useful unless people are playing them in music. Getting my instruments played is a major part of seeing whether they are successful and having them make a difference. Part of the way I do that is to come out with some of the hardware instruments I’ve developed as products.”
To date his greatest success has been the Manta, described on Snyderphonics’ website as a unique touch-system interface for music and video control. “That’s the one instrument I’ve made where there are other people for whom it’s their main instrument. I’ve got a lot of things that I’ve made that are more one-offs or I’ve made them for a specific piece. That’s one of the things that makes me really happy, that there are people who have picked up the Manta and developed virtuosity with it. They have serious instrumental skills focused on that instrument. For me, that’s success. That shows me that I made something that matters.”
Ignoring the idea of enough is enough, Snyder can be seen and heard performing in a variety manifestations: a member of experimental electronic duo exclusiveOr, the avant jazz group The Federico Ughi Quartet, and the improvisatory noise trio The Mizries. He also fronts Owen Lake and the Tragic Loves (Owen is Snyder’s middle name), appearing as his electro-country alter-ego to combine “a passion for classic country with an arsenal of homemade electronic instruments” and creating “unique music that defies existing labels and forges a new sound, ‘electro-country.’”
Returning to topic of the new Lewis Center, Snyder says he is happy with the facilities, which seem to parallel his mission as a teacher of courses like Transformations in Engineering and the Arts. Pitched at students living at the intersection of different fields, as he was and continues to be, Transformations addresses both the aesthetic and technical sides of a hybrid art. Similarly, he sees the potential of the new arts complex to draw fresh things from established disciplines.
“I think perhaps the most important aspect of the new building is the role it will take in joining the performing arts at Princeton together,” he says. “Instead of having separate departments doing their thing in their own disconnected spaces, the building brings them into one space, and I hope it will encourage artistic collaboration. We even have one large room, called the CoLab, which doesn’t belong to any department. It is designed as a multi-use space for collaborations between the arts and for projects that live outside the lines of traditional practices.”
Wave Fanfare, Lewis Center for the Arts Plaza and Forum, Princeton University. Friday and Saturday, October 6 and 7, 8 p.m. Free. arts.princeton.edu.