On Music: This Music Surely Does Compute Kevin Smokler --------------------------- Special to The Gazette Twenty years ago, C. Matthew Burtner fell in love at a second-grade musical assembly. The object of his affections was a duet played by a saxophone and a Theremin controller, a simple electromagnetic instrument. "I thought it was absolutely the coolest thing I'd ever seen," says the 26-year-old. "It went on the stack while I played in and wrote for a lot of rock bands in high school. But I guess I've come back to it." Burtner's return to his childhood fascination has yielded extraordinary results. Now a second-year student in Peabody Conservatory's master of computer music program, he still blows sax but is lauded as a composer of computer music. His piece Taruyammarutet--Twisted Faces (in Wood), a name describing a style of mask worn by indigenous peoples in his native Alaska, was awarded first prize in the inaugural Prix d'Et‚, a biennial competition for musical compositions that significantly utilize computers and electronics. Composed for bass clarinet, marimba, soprano voice and computer, Taruyammarutet premieres Thursday at the Friedberg Concert Hall. "This kind of technology allows you to compose outside the realm of style," says Burtner. "You're dealing with sounds on the most minimal level where you sculpt music a bit at a time and aren't concerned with whether something 'sounds like jazz' or 'sounds like pop'....Really the only limits are your imagination." In fact, says Geoffrey Wright, director of the Computer Music program, "computer music" connotes not a genre, but a method of making music of any number of styles. Times have changed since Burtner heard the Theremin (a pair of electromagnetic poles producing an invisible field that, when interrupted by the hand, result in musical notes). The department's state-of-the-art facilities are capable of both mimicking and expanding the capabilities of traditional instruments as well as creating entirely new sounds. "A piano has only 88 keys, but a computer can expand its range in both directions," explains Wright. "It can make one piano sound like two, three or a thousand." This occurs by a computer mathematically recording the human factors that go into the production of sound from an instrument, such as the velocity of a finger striking a key or the strength of breath through a mouthpiece. It then presents these figures to a composer who may alter them in almost any way imaginable. Sound is released through a set of external speakers. Consequently, while the average person might think of "computer music" as the start-up chimes of a Macintosh, the 23 master of music candidates in the department see it as an intellectually challenging and highly expressive art form. Admittance to the two-year program, says Wright, requires students to be "conservatory level musicians." Completion--with a specialization in either composition, performance or research on topics such as psychoacoustics and perception--requires a portfolio, solo recital or research paper. Wright stresses that Peabody's three-pronged approach to computer music and its artistic capabilities makes it unlike any such program in the world. "Other institutions with computer music programs, like MIT and Stanford, focused on technology because they were the inventors of the technology," he says. "They made the tools, and we applied them to music-making. We also have resources like the Peabody chorus and orchestra that they don't." Yet enlisting the help of traditional musicians was not easy in the early days of the department. Founded in 1967 as the Electronic Music Department, it consisted primarily of "a couple of guys fiddling around on primitive synthesizers," says Wright. Respect from the musical community was scant as their work was seen as the radical noodlings of musicians who couldn't make the grade on traditional instruments. However, since the advent of technology into conservatory and American life, relations between the two camps have improved. If any anxieties exist, they appear to be a musician's fear that, if computers can substitute for a human performer, will this isolate musicians from music? "There has been an evolution throughout musical history of musical technology to give the player more control over the instrument," says Wright. "Harpsichords were not able to produce loud and soft sounds. That was the innovation of the piano. Computers are the logical extension of this." However, he says, the Computer Music Department will not be staging concerts where a performer strolls on stage, pushes a button and a symphony is played. "It is still the artist's responsibility to bring expressiveness towards sound," he says. "An artist can be expressive on a violin, rock or computer while a non-artist can be bad at all three." From the student's standpoint, exploiting technology to artistic end is where the challenge lies. "My main instrument is the studio," says composer Clay Chaplin, a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. Chaplin described his style as "a hodgepodge, ambient music sound" with a recent emphasis on musique concrŠte, a French school of computer music that molds household sounds into music. Kenneth Kinard, whose Quartet for the Sake of Time received second prize in the Prix d'Et‚, explains that his piece is a study of music creating a sense of time, independent of real time. "Real time is linear and marches forward," he says. "Imagine if a piece of music began one way, then suddenly shifted to something else, then something else and then back to the first way. You have a completely different sense of the passage of time." Kinard, who composed Quartet for violin, French horn and an elaborate array of synthesizers, says these lightning-quick changes, which make the study of time and music possible, necessitate computers. Students also emphasize that performance of computer music allows for new avenues of expression. Works are frequently multimedia in nature, accompanied by projected and video images. Kaleidoscope, a Burtner piece staged last year, took place in the spiral staircase with the audience seated, from top to bottom, on the stairs. "The whole thing was a living sculpture," says Haleh Abghari, a soprano who performed in Kaleidoscope. "The music is still beautiful and expressive no matter what the medium." Despite these works of daring, Wright argues that the field of computer music is young and "needs its champions" to become more fully developed. A doctorate of musical arts program, which the department hopes to have within three years, will aid in this process, says Wright, along with competitions like the Prix d'Et‚. That was Walter Summer's thinking when he established the competition (the name is French for "Summer's Prize") in September of 1994. The retired program analyst, and 1947 Peabody graduate, originally wanted to endow a chamber music competition but saw computer music as "the new sound on the block" in need of supporters. "What all composers need is to be heard," says Summers. "If this type of music is to grow and develop, we need to reward excellence when we see it." The Prix d'Et‚ recital takes place Thursday, March 28, at noon in the Friedberg Concert Hall. It is free and open to the public.
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