"They're black boxes. You can do anything with them," says Bob Boilen, warming up to one of his favorite subjects -- synthesizers, and their ever-expanding capacity to create a new universe of sound.
"It's like buying 25 tubes of paint and an easel," he explains, his enthusiasm growing steadily. "You don't have to paint a landscape, you can paint anything. It's an amazing instrument, and the people who design them are so good now that the options to explore are endless."
Some of the more intriguing options Boilen recently has explored using the Synclavier II, a highly sophisticated digital synthesizer capable of creating and storing a nearly boundless yet individually tailored catalogue of sounds, can be heard in the Impossible Theater of Baltimore's original production of "Social Amnesia." Performances are scheduled for tonight through Saturday in the National Museum of American History's Baird Auditorium.
Combining text, slides and film with six performing artists and Boilen's electronic score, the production, a critique of North American culture and politics, was inspired by two books of history and social commentary: "Social Amnesia," by Russell Jacoby, and "A People's History of the United States," by Howard Zinn.
According to Boilen, the company's musical director, everyone in the 3-year-old theater group first read and discussed the books. Then, once a production was outlined, Boilen set out to enhance and reinforce the proposed visual and spoken images using his imagination and a Synclavier, which unlike an analog synthesizer has the ability to store sounds on disc. "It's the granddaddy of them all," he says.
Boilen considers himself lucky to have had access to the $50,000 instrument in the first place. The opportunity came out of the blue several years ago, after the owner of a local recording studio, where Boilen's short-lived new-wave band, Tiny Desk Unit, had cut a couple of albums, invited him to experiment with a newly purchased Synclavier. Once he started, he couldn't stop.
Boilen explored the Synclavier's potential for four years, all the while building up an enormous bank of varied sounds. By the time he joined the theater company, he felt confident of his skills as a composer.
"I think I reached a place where I could create music that was really unique," he says, adding that the sound track for "Social Amnesia" took five months to complete. "There are some pieces where you might hear something that sounds like something else, like a violin. But for the most part these are sounds you can't really identify, sounds you've never heard before. I hope there's also an emotional quality involved in the music, because I've actually taken and molded these sounds myself."
The idea of merely duplicating electronically the sounds of other known instruments doesn't much interest Boilen, who works as a control-room operator for a local television station when he isn't composing music. He feels you can't really duplicate the true sound of, say, a violin with a synthesizer anyway, pointing to some of the subtle but crucial differences involved in playing a keyboard and a bowed instrument. So why bother?
"All synthesizers come with preset sounds, violins, bells, all of that stuff," he says. "And they provide immediate gratification. That's what sells them. But these instruments have an incredible capacity for sound design. That's what's really exciting about them."
Boilen, 32, joined the Impossible Theater in 1982. He began playing the synthesizer only four years earlier, and though he had no musical training, he was on stage playing with Tiny Desk Unit a few months later. He recalls the two years he spent with the band as a mixture of fun and adventure, but he quickly grew tried of the local club scene. The little air play the band's music received, mostly on college stations, didn't help matters any. So when he got the opportunity to compose music for the theater group, Boilen jumped at it.
"Social Amnesia" doesn't represent his first multimedia collaboration with Impossible Theater, however. He also wrote the music for "Whiz Bang: A Short History of Sound," a computerized slide show installed at the National Museum of History during the New Music America Festival in 1983. Based largely on the research of R. Murray Schafer and his book "The Tuning of the World," "Whiz Bang" offered a brief summary of development of soundscapes throughout the ages, from purely natural environments to modern life with all its attendant noise.
"Schafer's book is a fascinating study," Boilen says. "For instance, the church bell was the loudest sounding man-made noise in the environment at one time. In fact, when you couldn't hear the church bell ringing anymore -- that more or less defined the limits of the town."
Although the necessity to take natural sounds from various environmments for "Whiz Bang" required the use of an even more sophisticated synthesizer, the real challenge still awaits Boilen. The theater company, along with the Washington Project for the Arts, recently received a grant from a division of the National Endowment for the Arts to create a theatrical version of "Whiz Bang."
Needless to say, Boilen can't wait to resume work on the project. "The possibility of composing a two-hour piece using 95 percent natural sounds as its basis and trying to trace the history of sound is, well, thrilling to us all."