Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 25 1996

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

     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

     "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

     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

     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

     "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

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