Electronica Fest brings unheard-of sounds to the ear Saturday

In world of electronic music, 'every tone is possible'

By Chris Kaltenbach |

Baltimore Sun reporter

September 3, 2009

Music is everywhere in Peter Blasser's house - just not where you'd expect to find it.

Sure, there's the tuba upstairs, an instrument he's been playing since he was a kid. And there are the various acoustic stringed instruments, like the Moroccan-style lute, that he's been building since high school. But there's also the wall-hanging in his basement, the shirt on a hook outside his bedroom closet and the boxlike gadget tucked on a shelf above his first-floor work space. These objects don't look particularly melodic, but the sounds they make are attention-grabbers of the first order, whirring and wheezing and woofing sounds unlike anything your father's symphony - or rock band, for that matter - ever produced.

"I really love the infinite tonalities you can get out of these instruments," says Blasser, whose creations include some that can be played by rubbing your fingers across wooden strips, others that can be played simply by walking near them or waiting for a stiff breeze to enter the room. "You realize in electronica that every tone is possible, so you should be working with every tone."

Welcome to the far-flung, wide-open world of electronica: sounds and melodies produced by circuit boards, transistors, oscillators and the batteries that power them, attached to everything from banners to shirts to seemingly stray pieces of wood. Blasser, 29, has been playing, designing and manufacturing instruments like these for almost a decade. He is one of about 20 electronics artists who will be performing, demonstrating or conducting do-it-yourself workshops at Electronica Fest 2009, taking place Saturday at the National Electronics Museum in Linthicum.

Electronic music is nothing new - the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson was using a theremin to add that wooo-ooooh sound to "Good Vibrations" in 1966, while the Who's Pete Townshend had a synthesizer whirling its way through the chords of 1971's "Baba O'Reilly." But with today's electronica, it's as though the Moogs and the theremins were put on steroids.

"This is going to be a very modern, very cool day," says Gary Mauler, an engineer for Northrop Grumman who volunteers at the museum and is organizing Electronica Fest. For visitors, he promises a "total immersion in electronics. ... It's very different from what people will be used to."

Blasser is happily representative of that notion. Tall and dirty-blond-haired, with slim fingers just perfect for alternately brushing, stroking and prodding the instruments he designs, he delights in creating sounds and experiences well outside the norm.

Sitting in his West Baltimore workshop, Blasser prepares to play his tetrazzi organ, an instrument slightly larger than a DVD case and about twice as thick. Oak strips are set across its top, functioning as a sort of keyboard. On the side, knobs are used to adjust the pitch and tone. Underneath it all is the Blasser-designed circuit board that translates the pressure exerted by his fingers into sounds, which come out of small speakers. The tetrazzi is connected by a thin wire to its power source, a single 9-volt battery.

Stretching out his fingers, Blasser gently strokes the pressure-sensitive wooden keys. By varying the pressure and the direction of his strokes, he can make sounds travel from one speaker to another, make them climb from a low howl to a guttural wail. Simply by sliding his fingers, Blasser can stretch out tones beyond what seems reasonable, to create sounds both profoundly otherworldly and utterly engaging.

Down in his basement, another of Blasser's designs, which he calls a deerhorn, hangs from the ceiling; with a smile, he refers to it as a "polyphonic theremin." Its electronic circuitry, attached via wires to pieces of fabric and circuit boards, doesn't need to be touched to create sounds; in fact, it reacts to a wide range of environmental factors, including temperature, wind, light, even the mere presence of a human. Walk close to the deerhorn's multicolored tapestry, and the sounds begin to swell, growing louder and fuller; back away, and it grows quiet. Stand still for an extended period, though, and become really entranced, as the quiet is intermittently broken up by eerie moans and gentle sighs.

"There's something about not playing it," he says, sounding like something of a proud father, looking forward to introducing his brainchildren to an appreciative new audience on Saturday. "You hang it on the wall, and it plays itself."

If you go
Electronica Fest 2009 takes place 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Saturday at the National Electronics Museum, 1745 W. Nursery Road, in Linthicum. Twelve musicians perform from 11:15 a.m.-8:15 p.m. on a stage set up outside, while inside the museum, demonstrations and workshops are offered. Tickets are $6. Call 410-765-0230 or go to