Musicians master technology
By Jane Cavalier
Published on Monday, April 4, 2011
Oftentimes, music groups work solos into their songs to give individual performers the chance to improvise. Larry Polansky, the Jacob H. Strauss 1922 professor in music, composed a music piece that does the reverse — the performers of his piece can play whatever they want, with however many musicians and whichever instruments they choose, as long as one of the instruments adheres to the score at any given point of the entire piece.
Dartmouth’s Masters Program in Digital Musics is a uniquely experimental and entrepreneurial 21-month program currently composed of six students and a small faculty. According to the department website, the interdisciplinary program encourages students to explore the points of tangency between music and “multimedia, composition, mathematics, computer science, information retrieval, cognition and neuroscience.”
Polansky’s piece “Ensembles of Note,” created in the tradition of American chance-music developed by John Cage, was performed by the New Music Collective in Charleston, S.C., this March at the Receiver Time-Based Media Festival. A composition by Dartmouth graduate student David Kant GR’12, titled “Variations for Functions and Partitions of Time — Variation XXIV,” was also performed by the group. Both pieces were selected for their relation to the festival’s theme of time-based media.
Of the disciplines that Digital Musics seeks to explore, Kant has particularly embraced the relationships between music, information retrieval and neuroscience in his work. Kant has created a number of works related to structures of time while enrolled in the Digital Musics graduate program, and it was these compositions that provoked the New Music Collective to ask him to write a piece regarding time for the Receiver.
Kant’s composition couples any three instruments with computer-generated sounds. The New Music Collective used a flute, a clarinet and a melodica — which is a free-reed instrument with a musical keyboard and a mouthpiece — at the festival.
“The computer records the sounds of the instruments as they perform live, and plays back short samples of these sounds,” Kant said.
At the festival, the musicians walked around the stage to three different microphones, inputting the sound of their instruments into each to develop a computer-generated synergy. The resulting music piece evolved as the New Music Collective performed it.
“The ratio, or chances, of hearing a given instrumental sample at a given moment in time is the direct result of the durations each instrument has recorded into each of the three separate processing instances,” Kant said.
Graduate student Alison Mattek GR’12 also embraced the multidisciplinary nature of the Digital Musics program last term in an assignment for her music composition class. Her piece, titled “Variations for Noise,” represented the properties of white, pink, brown and black noise signals — as defined by the spectral density of noise — with acoustic instruments.
Mattek’s section on black noise, which is beyond the level of human hearing, consisted of sounds produced by dog-whistles. The piece premiered last term at Spheris Gallery in a performance by the Dartmouth Contemporary Music Lab, a musical group comprised of graduate students in the program.
Graduate student Alex Wroten GR’11 is working on a thesis that is a testament to the dynamic intersection of “interactive principles, computer science and music” in their influence on the development of technology. He is working to develop three video games, each at different skill levels, which give players the opportunity to create their own music.
Like Polansky, professor Kui Dong brings her international renown and influence as a composer to the classroom. Dong’s compositions mingle the sounds of jazz and electro-acoustic music with her background in traditional Chinese instruments and harmonies.
Dong’s “Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter Suite” was hailed by the Washington Post as “a work of exceptional beauty and imagination, from its light-filled opening movement to the powerful and profound close.” The piece, performed by the Del Sol String Quartet for the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Concert Series, “wove the sonorities of the quartet and the Chinese instruments together with a delicate, subtle touch,” the Post reported. “This a composer to watch.”
Students often draw inspiration from sources similar to their accomplished professors. Mattek used the theories of Cage to develop a piece in response to “interactive I ching,” a Taoist philosophy centered on the construction of hexagrams and trigrams. Mattek collaborated on the project with Mark Freeman, whom she met as an undergraduate student at the University of Miami, to develop a “Laser Light Plan Multi-touch Table.” When users of the table touch the glass surface, blocking oncoming light, the shadow is picked up by a camera and then sent to a computer.
“The software algorithm computes a hexagram according to the [shadow of the] user’s touch,” Mattek said. Whichever hexagram is computed triggers a corresponding prerecorded sample of music, according to Mattek.
The development of technology in digital music is a critical component of composition for many of the students in the program.
“There is an attitude that technology can expand our creative possibilities, but also still limit us,” Mattek said. “Developing technology for creative expression helps us to get rid of these limitations.”
The future direction of the Masters Program in Digital Musics will continue to be as dynamic as the graduate students in the program, as they continue to collaborate “freely, fluidly and constantly,” Polansky said.
As a field of composition, development and research, digital musics is likely to become “increasingly interdisciplinary,” according to Mattek. The discipline is poised to involve “more and more fields, even as far reaching as economics.”