A violin in the hands of a master musician can be a soulfully engaging instrument; a feather's touch of a string, or a strong slash of the bow, can render a myriad of notes to delight the listener. There are a select few of us who with an instrument can produce sounds that make the rest of us scratch our heads and marvel at their abilities.
But human ability has its limitations. How long can a note be sustained on a violin? How fast can a pianist's fingers scamper across the keys? Miles Davis was a virtuoso trumpet player, but could he play in reverse?
Well, a computer can.
By using specialized software, a musical recording can be manipulated in many ways, such as stretching out a note or completely altering the music by changing its pitch and tempo. Computers can also produce sounds out of nothing through input devices such as the common electric keyboard or, these days, by receiving signals from infrared-emitting batons that have the ability to conduct a virtual orchestra.
For three decades the Peabody Conservatory's Computer Music Department has been pushing the limits of what computers can do to existing sounds--and inventing some new sounds along the way, too.
To celebrate the department's 30th anniversary, two concerts will take place this weekend. The performances, in Peabody's Friedberg Hall, will feature works by Peabody graduates, former and current faculty members and leading computer-music composers.
In addition to the concerts, there will be three days of master classes and other events, including a pre-concert lecture by Raymond Kurzweil, inventor, computer-age guru and author of the recently published The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence.
The multimedia concerts will highlight some of the advances made in computer music and the different ways that computer technology can be interwoven with acoustic instruments in performance.
MacGregor Boyle, Computer Music faculty member, says that computer music has come a long way from its electronic music roots.
"We are trying to find new ways to use computers in performance, and creating sounds that couldn't exist any other way. It's kind of a research field in a lot of ways," Boyle says.
The department began in the fall of 1969, when Peabody opened its electronic music studio. Founded by Jean Eichelberger Ivey, it was the first such studio in Maryland and the first anywhere to be located in a conservatory. In its infancy, the Electronic Music Studio did not utilize computer technology as it was too costly but relied rather on less expensive synthesizers. It wasn't until Peabody affiliated with Hopkins in 1977 that computers were integrated into study.
In 1982 Geoffrey Wright established the Computer Music Studio and the Computer Music Consort, a professional digital arts performance group in residence at Peabody. The Electronic and Computer Music studios remained separate until 1989, when they were joined into a single department offering a master of music degree in computer music, with specialized tracks in composition, performance and research/technology.
The department admits six students a year and at any one time has 20 to 25 students working on a master's degree plus other Peabody students. The faculty stresses that the computer is to be used as another tool for musical creativity not as a replacement for traditional instruments.
"We want to humanize computers. We stress live interaction with them," Wright says. "That means getting the computers to play along with the performer."
A classically trained pianist, Wright first became involved with electronic music at the age of 12, when he played in a rock group. The son of a mathematician and a musician, Wright says he was taught early on not to ignore the possibilities of new musical technologies.
Likewise, his department wants students who are classically trained but are now looking to experiment in a new musical direction.
"Working with computers allows [musicians] to expand their palette of colors," Wright says. "They can now control sounds more, while also creating new ones."
Students typically work with computer programs designed for music manipulation, a process that might begin with a recording of an acoustic instrument such as a piano that is hooked up to a MIDI device. The MIDI, which stands for musical instrument digital interface, is a very simple way of representing musical gesture to a computer. Using the piano example, a MIDI controller indicates to the computer which keys were pressed and how hard they were hit, rather than actually recording the sound itself.
Once this data is recorded, the operator can mutate the sound from its original state to a completely different one. Pieces of the music can easily be deleted--or stretched out. Boyle says this is where the science aspect of the field comes in.
"We can look at a sonogram of the sound we recorded. It's like putting music under a microscope," Boyle says.
Many aspects of the technology are being used by today's pop stars to create sound loops and effects; artists such as Peter Gabriel, he points out, have been experimenting with computers and sound. And fans of Homicide have been hearing computer music for years: The show's theme song was composed by Lynn Kowal as part of her master's portfolio at Peabody.
For those unfamiliar with computer music, the anniversary concerts will be a nice introduction, Boyle says. Performances will include a digital treatment of traffic noise, a violinist being accompanied by a computer-controlled piano and the live processing sounds from acoustic instruments.
Wright says "the best music we could find" is in store for those in attendance.
"Last week at Peabody we might have had performances of music from the likes of Mozart or Beethoven, so we want these performances [of computer music] to be of equally high caliber artistically," says Wright, who is artistic director of the concert series. "We also want to include pieces that will grab the audience's attention."
Some of the featured performers are Princeton composer Paul Lansky, violinist Mari Kimura and Buchla Lightning virtuoso Forrest Tobey. The Buchla Lightning is an infrared-emitting conductor's baton that will prompt a synthesizer to make music. This type of technology, Wright says, is a precursor of the future of computer music. He envisions the day when computers will be able to read the subtle desires of the musician, such as a hand gesture or even his emotional state of mind. Wright himself is currently researching how to use brain activity to control a music synthesizer.
As computers increase in speed, the technology will make it possible for students to be able to create at home the type of music that now is possible only in the studios.
"Students will have the immediacy of working and composing at home when inspiration hits them," Wright says.
The next Mozart? He or she might be today's Web master.