The University Record, March 14, 1994

Blurring boundaries comes naturally to Digital Music Ensemble

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Selections by Chick Corea, Debussy and Prince may make an improbable concert program. But in the hands of the University’s unique Digital Music Ensemble, the odd triad works. Besides, the group is eclectic not by choice but by necessity.

Directed by Assistant Professor of Music Steve Rush, the ensemble is the only one of its kind in the country. “We have no repertoire,” Rush says. “So we have to invent one.”

Most student members of the 10- to 12-piece ensemble are majoring in music and technology, so blurring boundaries comes naturally to them. “They’re not just musicians and artists,” Rush notes. “They’re also scientists. One of the great things about playing in an integrated situation is that the engineers have room to exercise their creativity and sometimes turn out to be the loose cannons, while the musicians are the ones who often display the most logic.”

The ensemble rehearses in the School of Music’s Microcomputer/Synthesizer lab, filled with $150,000 worth of new gear that makes the Program in Music and Technology one of the most well-equipped in the nation. Twelve new Apple Macintosh Centris 660 AV computers with 12 Mb of RAM, speech recognition and on-board hard disk recording, color monitors, and 230-Mb CD-ROM hard drives dominate the desktops. Twelve new Roland JD-80 keyboards and a number of samplers and sound modules replace the aging Casio synthesizers installed five years ago when music and technology first debuted as a duet.

The synthesizers and computers communicate with the help of something called a MIDI—Musical Instrument Digital Interface—that’s both hardware and software. After the software captures a performance executed on the synthesizer, the performer can “edit” that performance, changing notes, modifying rhythms and altering amplitudes. The new, improved performance is returned to the synthesizer, allowing the music to be replayed at will.

In concert, all the hardware and wires make it tough for an audience to know what to expect. “The Digital Music Ensemble raises the issue of whether we should go to concerts expecting music to sound like music we’ve already known, or whether we should learn to regard technology as a tool for creating a whole new kind of musical experience,” says music Prof. David Crawford, acting director of the Center for Performing Arts Technology.

At some concerts, computer-generated visuals, dancers or a combination of both perform and interact with the ensemble, with changing colors and movements reflecting various aspects of the music. “There’s no typical correlation between sound and sight,” Rush says. “For example, you might hear flutes or human voices coming from a guitar, synthesizer or even a dancer triggering an infrared mechanism, similar to a home burglar alarm.”

For the Ensemble’s free, public concert at 8 p.m. Saturday (March 19) at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, Rush says there will be only one work by a “composer” in the traditional sense: Frank Zappa’s Bebop Tango.

“Students are working on various projects featuring infrared sensors, real-time improvisation software, dancer-controlled scores involving the Nintendo power glove, and a computer animation/video program called MAX.”

A concert at 4 p.m. Sunday (March 20) at the Mendelssohn will be similar, but not identical. Both concerts are free

The Digital Music Ensemble also will be playing April 7 at the Slusser Gallery, performing music composed by Rush. This free, 5–9 p.m. concert is a collaborative installation presented by Rush and computer artist Jamy Sheridan.

The work, Rush explains, involves a real-time computer-generated video image projected onto a screen covered with sand. “The sand serves as a hyperdimensional entity, as does the presence of a dancer in the same space.” The dancer for this show will be choreographer Jessica Fogel, associate professor of dance.