The Frances Densmore Prize is awarded annually by the American Musical Instrument Society for the most distinguished article-length work in English which best furthers the Society’s mission. The 2020 award committee considered papers published in the year 2018.
The 2020 Densmore Prize goes to Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa for his article “Theremin in the Press: Instrument remediation and code-instrument transduction,” published in the journal Organised Sound 23/3 (December 2018): 256-69.
This essay is a thorough and thoughtful account of the invention and early life of the theremin during the 1920s and 30s, covering aspects of its design, the social context in which it arose, and the ways it was used in musical performances. Going beyond this basic reporting, the author describes the rise of the theremin as “an important inflection point in the history of musical media” that “marked the beginning of a new paradigm in the exchange of information and in the way we make music and sound, transforming musical instrument design and construction, and through it, music composition as we understand it today.” As he notes, because it was “construed as an instrument that disappeared in performance to present us directly with the music” the theremin “fundamentally subverted the concept of the musical instrument as a medium for musical expression ... blurring the boundaries between composer, performer, instrument, score, audience, as well as luthier and engineer.”
Whereas scholars have in the past struggled to fit electronic instruments into established organological schemas, in this article Prof. Oliver La Rosa makes significant strides toward creating a new framework by which we can discuss and understand such instruments in relation to the broader field of organology. In the committee’s judgement, it is this sort of ground-breaking thinking and analysis that made his article stand out within a strong field of candidates, exemplifying as it does a significant and crucial paradigm shift in organological studies.
Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa is an Associate Professor of Music at New York University, where he has taught since 2013. He received his Ph.D. in Computer Music from the University of California, San Diego in 2011 and subsequently held a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Columbia University.
His music and research explore concepts of musical instruments in electronic and computer music and have been featured in many international festivals and conferences, working independently and collaborating with several composers, improvisers and artists in a field of action that spans sound performance and installation, composing and performing music for various media, and programming open source computer music software.
Professional recognitions include scholarships and grants from the Fulbright Commission, the University of California, Meet the Composer, and the Ministry of Culture of Spain, and residencies at the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe and at the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM) in Paris.
He was awarded the FETA Sound Arts prize in 2018, First Prize in FILE PRIX LUX 2010 (part of the Electronic Language International Festival in São Paulo Brazil), a GIGA-HERTZ-PREIS 2010 (special prize for technical innovation in the field of electronic composition), and First Prize in the 2009 Guthman Musical Instrument Competition at the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology.
The 2020 Densmore Prize Committee
Thomas MacCracken, chair