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EarthQuaker Symphony creates a confluence of classical and electronic music

musician with Akron Symphony Orchestra
DALE DONG 3306063297 daledongpho
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EarthQuaker Devices
The Akron Symphony Orchestra will perform the "EarthQuaker Symphony" program Saturday in collaboration with Akron-based effects pedal company EarthQuaker Devices.

Classical music fans will have the opportunity to experience orchestral music in a whole new way, thanks to a partnership between the Akron Symphony Orchestra and EarthQuaker Devices.

The orchestra will go electric by performing modern and traditional pieces while instruments are run through EarthQuaker effects pedals.

The “EarthQuaker Symphony” event will take place at E.J. Thomas Hall Saturday.

The program will include works by Beethoven and Hayden, with the addition of a new piece called “Confluence” that was composed by Jon Sonnenberg and Jake Gunner Walsh.

Akron Symphony Music Director Christopher Wilkins said the collaboration between two musical entities in Akron will bring together a diverse audience.

“I know we’ll have people come who love to be in clubs and love to hear electronic music and would never dream of coming to the Akron Symphony, but they’ll come because EarthQuaker is involved,” Wilkins said.

Blending traditional instruments with modern sounds

Akron-based EarthQuaker and the Akron Symphony began collaborating before the COVID-19 pandemic and released the “ASO Goes Electric” series virtually in 2021.

Classical musicians, including violinist Sam Petry and upright bassist Brian Del Biano, were featured playing their acoustic instruments run through effects pedals.

These video and podcast performances captured unique sounds that merged classical music with technology most typically used with electric guitars or synthesizers.

Wilkins said when the pandemic hit, the symphony sent musicians to EarthQuaker’s facility to try out different devices and film the virtual series.

He said EarthQuaker is an “Akron success story,” and the symphony wanted to collaborate for a while.

“And they work in our field, but a parallel field,” he said.

EarthQuaker’s effects pedals are created by hand in Akron. Blending the processed sound these devices create with traditional orchestral instruments isn’t a new concept, but it’s one Wilkins said isn’t done often.

“[There are] rock artists who dream of writing symphonies and [orchestras] are internationally versatile,” he said.

Wilkins said the symphony hired two composers, Sonnenberg and Walsh, to develop a new piece the orchestra could perform in conjunction with EarthQuaker to continue their collaboration.

Sonnenberg is a musician who has played in Travelogue, House of Wires, Pivot Clowj, The Autumns and more.

He helped design and create EarthQuaker’s Afterneath Eurorack Module and said he was friends with several of the company’s staff before its founding in the early 2000s.

Walsh is a New York-based composer, arranger and oboist who uses electric effects in his work.

Together, the two created “Confluence: A Concerto for Orchestra and EarthQuaker Devices,” which includes six short movements developed from Sonnenberg’s previous work for video games and film.

"It’s really a confluence of the two worlds."
Jon Sonnenberg

Five of the six movements are named after EarthQuaker devices.

In collaboration with Sonnenberg, Walsh experimented with several pedals and instruments, playing with different frequencies.

He created a list of 13 orchestral instruments, including the piccolo, timpani, cello and violin, that sounded interesting when played through an EarthQuaker device.

Sonnenberg said during the Saturday performance, each instrument will be played through an isolated microphone and one of the EarthQuaker pedals, which he will control during the program.

Listeners can expect to hear delays, distortions, pitch shifts, varying reverbs and other changes in sound that will give the orchestral instruments and entirely new tone and feel.

Creating a new instrument and six-movement piece

The “EarthQuaker Symphony” program will include orchestra players and soloists performing their instruments with five or six effects added in real time.

Sonnenberg said the orchestration of which pedals he will manipulate is deliberate, but there is some room for improvisation.

“I’m changing effects. There’s cues at which I want to make the instruments waver in pitch and distortion and things like this,” Sonnenberg said.

Walsh will perform on an instrument called the confluence harp, which was invented by Sonnenberg, who has been experimenting with building instruments for some time.

The instrument combines chimes and piano wire and is played with mallets.

“When you strike the chimes, you have these sympathetic vibrations happening from the strings, and you’re hitting a more complex body than just a string vibration or a chime vibration. It’s really a confluence of the two worlds,” Sonnenberg said.

The name of the program’s centerpiece, “Confluence,” was deliberate, as the collaboration between the orchestra and EarthQuaker joins classical with electronic sounds to create something new.

Musician and composer Jon Sonnenberg
Jon Sonnenberg
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Musician and composer Jon Sonnenberg has worked with EarthQuaker Devices to design and create effects pedals. He co-composed the piece "Confluence" and invented an instrument called the confluence harp for the performance with the Akron Symphony Orchestra.

“The idea of two different worlds coming together, that’s one aspect of this, the acoustic instruments and the electronic processes of the effects pedals,” Sonnenberg said.

The orchestra will perform four additional pieces in the program, which demonstrate how classical composers have reached outside of the normal realm of orchestral sound.

The program will end with “The Negro Folk Symphony” by William Dawson, which incorporates sounds inspired by West African rhythms, drumming and nature.

“We’ve already thought about how we can take this to new levels and start to expand the sonic palate of orchestras further through electronica,” Wilkins said.

Debuting the collaborative piece

The EarthQuaker effects Sonnenberg chose for the “Confluence” piece are the Depths, the Afterneath, the Dunes, the Aqueduct and the Astral Destiny.

EarthQuaker Devices CEO Julie Robbins is a member of the Akron Symphony Orchestra’s Board of Trustees and suggested Sonnenberg participate in composing the piece for “EarthQuaker Symphony.”

Jake Gunnar Walsh Head Shot.jpg
courtesy of Jon Sonnenberg
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courtesy of Jon Sonnenberg
New York-based composer, performer, oboist and educator Jake Gunnar Walsh worked with Jon Sonnenberg to develop the six-movement orchestral piece "Confluence" for the "EarthQuaker Symphony" program. Walsh will play the confluence harp during the performance.

Sonnenberg said he’s never worked with a whole orchestra before, and most of his arrangements have been developed on synthesizers.

Wilkins invited Walsh to help expand Sonnenberg’s music for the orchestra.

The confluence of these two composers helped bring Sonnenberg’s MIDI and synthesizer sounds into the acoustic, classical world.

“I think that’s exciting—kind of transforming some of these traditional-sounding instruments into something that still sounds very acoustic but isn’t quite what people are used to,” Sonnenberg said.

The two composers come from different musical worlds, and rather than just arranging Sonnenberg’s movements into orchestral works, the composition began to take on a new life in “Confluence.”

Walsh and Sonnenberg will join the Akron Symphony Orchestra on stage for the performance, which has been two years in the making.

The full “EarthQuaker Symphony” program is:

  • Haydn’s “Earthquake” from “The Seven Last Words of Christ”
  • Beethoven’s “The Creatures of Prometheus” overture
  • Beethoven’s “The Ruins of Athens” Turkish march
  • Walsh and Sonnenberg’s “Confluence” commissioned piece
  • Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony”

“EarthQuaker Symphony” begins at 8 p.m. Saturday at E.J. Thomas Hall, located at 198 Hill St. in Akron.
Tickets are available for purchase at akronsymphony.org. Prices range from $20 to $60 for adults and $15 for children or students.

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Amanda Rabinowitz has been a reporter, host and producer at WKSU since 2007. After serving as WKSU's Morning Edition host for a dozen years, she moved to afternoons in March of 2022 to become the local host of All Things Considered. In addition to providing local news and weather, she interviews Terry Pluto of Cleveland.com for a weekly commentary about Northeast Ohio's sports scene called The View From Pluto. She also hosts and produces Shuffle, a podcast focusing on Northeast Ohio’s music scene.
Brittany Nader joins All Things Considered host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene. As Shuffle Producer, she provides planning, scheduling, strategy and writing support for WKSU's weekly spin through local music.