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INSTRUMENTS OF CHAN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's 10 a.m. when the suits arrive. Geoffrey Wright, head o Peabody Conservatory's computer-music department, is on his second large coffee and third hurried meeting.

Word has gotten around that Peabody is doing research with something called a "virtual orchestra," so three businessmen have driven up from northern Virginia. They'd like to see for themselves.

Wright waves his visitors down a hall, past students hurrying to violin lessons, theory classes or piano practice rooms, and into a small studio filled with computers. The men arrange themselves in a half-circle, and the demonstration begins.

With a flourish, Peabody graduate Forrest Tobey lifts his hands in the classic pose of a conductor calling his orchestra to order.

But there are no musical instruments to be seen.

With silver wands, one held in each hand, Tobey beckons -- and music spills from the air. First comes the glissando of a harp, then the trill of a flute, then the clash of cymbals.

Tobey's batons are part of a device called a Buchla Lightning. As they move, they direct a beam of infrared light to a computerized receiver. The computer senses the batons' positions and velocity as they move through the air and translates Tobey's conducting gestures into instructions for a synthesizer, which produces music.

The suits exchange glances: This is cool. They are organizing an international technology convention. Maybe Tobey could perform at it? But as they talk excitedly, Wright gives a nearly imperceptible shake of his head, "No."

There is too much to do.

For the first time in his career, the conservatory professor is not interested in performances. He is not looking for applause for his students, or the approval of an awe-struck audience. Instead, for Wright and his colleagues, the last few weeks have been a whirlwind of patent applications and licensing agreements. "I can't afford the time to just do demonstrations," he says. "We're finally at the point where things are moving forward, and there is no time to waste."

The members of Peabody's computer-music department are musicians who want to use technology to enhance their art. Some, like Tobey, are conductors or performers who view computers as musical instruments. Others see computers as tools to be used to compose new works or create new sounds.

Over the years, in their quest to create great art, some of Peabody's researchers have developed technology that may have applications outside the musical world.

The conservatory, formally known as the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, recently began marketing a product developed by its computer-music department. Called SoundView, the highly sophisticated software can analyze and manipulate sound and -- if marketed and sold successfully -- could become a new source of funding for the institution.

It also means that Hopkins for the first time is acknowledging that the conservatory, like the medical or engineering schools, is a source of potentially lucrative innovation. And it means that musicians now have the dual opportunities that long have been available to professors in scientific fields: to conduct research and to transform it into marketable, profitable products.

"Musicians historically have lived on patronage. Scientists have looked to research grants," says Wright. "We are trying to explore the non-traditional ways of finding funding."

For 140 years, Peabody has been known as a place for chamber music concerts, violin recitals and symphonic performances, and its emphasis always has been on providing classical training for young musicians.

But the school also has pushed the boundaries of musical study: In 1968, Peabody became one of the first conservatories in the country to offer courses in electronic music. And in 1982, Wright founded the school's computer-music studio.

He has worked to attract students from all over the world who, like Tobey, are both classically trained and fluent in technology. "You could say I am looking to attract the 'Renaissance musician.' The question is, 'Who are the geniuses of the next musical generation? Who are the Beethovens, the Mozarts? The ones who are way out front?' We don't know.

"I'm hoping that some of our students are able to go out there and really set the standard for whatever is the next generation of music."

Still, the Peabody computer-music department is very small -- only about six graduate students enter it each year (some 40 enter Peabody's piano program, the institution's largest). And computer-music departments at other, larger academic centers such as Stanford, MIT or the University of California San Diego produce streams of graduates and cutting-edge research.

The difference, Wright argues, is that other computer-science departments don't offer what Peabody has in large quantity: classically trained musicians. And other conservatories can't offer the technological training that Peabody, with its ties to Hopkins, can. At Peabody, "We are concerned about content, communication and expressiveness. We aren't going to build the next fastest computer, but we are going to make it sing, dance and play music."

His aim is to build Peabody's reputation nationally as a center for computer-music studies, a place that fosters creativity and allows students and faculty members to experiment. If, while they are in pursuit of great music, these musicians produce research that leads to new products such as SoundView, so much the better.

"I have big dreams," he says. "The immediate financial thing is great, but I am pushing beyond that. I am in this for the music. And I want to create a premier academic center for computer music."

Music and math

Geoffrey Wright has the air of a man rushing to catch a bus that already is easing away from the curb. At 46, he has fair hair and a beard and the not-quite-trim physique of someone who works long hours. He speaks succinctly but breathlessly, a leg jiggling with nervous energy, giving the impression that he is ready to answer your question before you've finished posing it.

He often asks, kindly, "Am I going too fast?"

Days begin with meetings at 6 or 7 a.m., followed by private lessons and classes both at Peabody and at Goucher College in Towson, where he runs another computer-music department. Nights are for composing, though he hasn't done much lately, and for research. If you are looking for him, suggests his assistant, try leaving messages on his answering machine at home, his office voice mail, his cell phone, and his e-mail -- all of them. "He is sometimes hard to reach."

When he was a teen-ager, Wright couldn't decide which he liked more: math or music. His father, a numbers-loving, saxophone-playing chemist, was rooting for math. But in high school Wright rebelled: "I gave up math, I started paying attention to music." At Kalamazoo College in Michigan and later at Peabody, he concentrated first in organ, then composing.

To understand what drives the music professor, however, you need to understand the rapport that exists between a musician and his instrument. It is a relationship between a human being who yearns for self-expression and a man-made object constructed of wood and glue.

Musicians speak of their instruments as if they were lovers. They caress their violins. They hug their cellos. It is this emotional connectedness that Wright wants to develop between musician and computer.

"Think of the model of a violin and how a violinist can take it and make it express the very depths of human emotion and thought," says. "That is what I am working toward."

Musician and machine

It is just after 2 p.m. when Wright realizes he is late to a piano lesson. Wright's student, Wan-ching Li, is preparing for an important recital, and today's session will be used to polish her technique.

Wright swoops into the classroom, says a quick "hello," then stops short -- and plops onto the floor. From there, he cranes his neck, and peers up at the belly of a baby grand.

The piano is brand-new and has been equipped with a small box with ports for cables: a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), standard equipment in the music profession, used to transfer sound data from musical instruments to computers. Wright grins like a boy with a new train: "This is cool."

Li is warming up, her fingers lightly touching the keys as she plays scales, then chords. As have most Peabody students, she has been involved with music nearly all her life: She began piano lessons at age 3, studied organ and composition in college, then worked as a production assistant at a recording company. Now 29, Li has come to Baltimore from Taipei, Taiwan, because she wants to create art that combines music and technology.

She begins playing "Caution to the Wind," a piece written in 1987 by James Mobberley for piano and tape-recorded accompaniment. The composition is delightful and raucous; at one point, Li karate chops the piano and, at another, she slams the keyboard cover.

The piece also demands machine-like precision.

Each stroke of Li's fingers must coincide perfectly with the music made by her inanimate partner, which plays on no matter what. "It is really hard to synchronize with the tape," she says later. "I have to put a stopwatch on top of the piano and watch it as I count seconds to make sure I am completely accurate. It doesn't allow me much freedom."

But at the recital, Li will play a second piece that illustrates what she and others mean when they talk about increasingly responsive interactions between man and computer.

The composition is called "Duet for 1 Pianist," and was written by Jean-Claude Risset for piano -- and computer. Playing duets with a computer is different from being accompanied by a tape

recorder. Information about each piano key Li touches, and the force with which it is struck, is transmitted by the MIDI to a computer. Based upon how and what Li plays, the computer decides which notes to play and how and when to play them. "With a computer, I can play in real time. I don't need to follow a recording."

She plays: Her small hands flying up and down the keyboard, her notes by turns full and rich, light and clear. The computer plays: Its synthesizer producing crescendos and trills that complement her music.

New sounds and old

Meg Schedel swipes her electronic pass through the sensor on each of two electronic doors that lead to the computer-music studio. When they shut behind her with quiet clicks, it is as though the graduate student has entered a world in which sound is all.

She sits in front of the computer, a slight, red-haired woman dwarfed by electronic equipment. The studio walls are black, covered with material that allows sound frequencies to pass through it undisturbed, the same kind that is used to cover speakers. Beneath her, the floor is angled because parallel surfaces cause reverberation. The light is artificial and harsh; the sole window is covered with three tilted panes of glass -- the better to muffle sound.

Until she was 14, Schedel wanted to be a cellist, or perhaps a pianist. But on her birthday, her father, a computer programmer, gave her software that enabled her to score music. And that was that. Now 24, she earned a degree in computer music from Goucher and hopes to finish her master's degree at Peabody next year. For Schedel, computers are tools with which to compose as well as instruments with which to perform.

Today she is working on an octet that she is composing for string quartet and ZETA quartet. ZETA instruments are equipped with MIDIs so that a bow stroke doesn't produce traditional notes. Instead, the bow triggers a synthesizer, which can produce anything that Schedel desires.

She might record a drum roll, then use her computer to manipulate the sound, altering it so much that it becomes something entirely different. For example, the sharp crack of a single stroke on a snare drum might become a long sound that lingers, reverberating, in the air. With the help of a computer, "I might draw out a particular pitch. I might stretch the sound," she says.

Her goal is to create new sounds and new ways of integrating computer technology with acoustic instruments. "I think of computer music as an extension of cellos or violins, which are beautiful, and I don't ever want to replace them. You are never going to really replicate the music they produce, so I concentrate on making a completely different kind of music."

Brain power

It is dark when a visitor approaches the Catonsville home where Wright does much of his research. The front door swings wide open, and there the music professor stands, wires angling out from his head like a trio of delicate antlers.

Tonight Wright and his colleague Edmund Pirali, a music professor who left Peabody in 1994 to form his own computer consulting company, are demonstrating one of Wright's projects: sensory-driven control system. That is, the two men use a human being's sense of sight to trigger brain waves, which are then used to give commands to the computer.

Years ago, when Wright began working with electronic music, he realized that he wanted the synthesizer to be more responsive to him.

His thinking went along these lines: Traditional instruments require some form of physical manipulation. For example, to play a clarinet, one must pick it up and blow.

But a synthesizer runs on electricity. And brain waves are electronic. "Why not eliminate the physical system used to produce music with a synthesizer?" he thought.

"Why not use brain activity to control a synthesizer?"

What began as research into brain-generated music became research into sensory-driven control systems -- research that could one day have other applications.

Brain waves could one day be used to operate video games. (Imagine playing a computer game without a mouse or a joystick.) They could allow the severely physically disabled to operate computers without having to move a muscle. They could be used by office workers who are simultaneously using their hands to do other tasks.

Wright leads his visitor into a low-ceilinged basement crammed with electronic equipment and sits in front of a computer, wires still bobbing gently around his head. The wires are attached to his scalp by electrodes, which resemble small, round Band-Aids. Two electrodes are stuck to the back of his head, where the brain's occipital lobes, which process visual images, are located. A third electrode is stuck to Wright's forehead.

Pirali turns on the computer, and the screen is filled with what appear to be small, black-and-white checkerboards, with squares that flicker and undulate. No two are alike.

The men begin by "teaching" the computer to recognize Wright's responses to individual checkerboards. Pirali flashes them on the computer screen one by one and asks Wright to look at each. Because every person's brain responds differently to every sight, Wright's brain-wave response is as much his own as a thumbprint.

Pirali teaches the computer to recognize Wright's responses to about 20 checkerboards. Then click! Five of the checkerboards flash on the screen. This time they're labeled: pictures, music, telephone, typing, stop. Wright looks at the square for music.

Vivaldi fills the air.

Wright leans back in his chair and waves his hand in the direction of synthesizers, computers, mixers, electronic keyboards that fill the basement around him. "Sitting here is like sitting at a giant organ console or standing on a conductor's podium."

Then he looks at a checkerboard that is assigned to the word "telephone." A menu of numbers fills the screen. It's slow going, but by looking at checkerboards that correspond to the numbers he wants to dial, Wright makes a phone call.

The two men look pleased. "It is really cool to be able to do this," Wright says.

He's right: It is cool. He can dial 911 or turn on the lights with a glance. He can fill the air with organ music. He can write a letter without paper, pencil, keyboard or mouse.

Sometimes when he's in his office at Peabody, Wright sits in his chair and looks at his desktop computer.

Of course, nothing happens.

But one day . . .

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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