Sunday, December 24, 2006

MIT rules

It all started when I was living in NYC and was having coffee in the library (aka, any of the bookstores that grace the city's streets). I had sat down to flip through the book Handel as Orpheus, by one Ellen T. Harris, former Associate Provost for the Arts at MIT. Eventually that led to google searches which brought up a talk given by Harris on her book, which is certainly a good taste of what is contained in her book (see the below realplayer window). I mean, MIT isn't exactly a place that I think of when classical music (or really, music at all), certainly not from an academic standpoint, but after consideration, it didn't seem all that strange. At school, the chemistry teachers that I had were all extremely vital people with pretty diverse interests -- it just so happened that the one interest that all the other ones seemed to connect to, either obliquely or more directly, happened to be a science.
As an aside, one of the most stunning classes I took in college was an organic chemistry course that traced the development of organic chemistry as a discipline, including the multiple revisions of chemical bonds, etc. This approach definitely required close attention and note-taking (it wasn't rare that 90% of the class was covering and learning in detail the ramifications and conclusions resulting from erroneous hypotheses/understandings, so if you missed the reversal into current accepted theory, you could have committed to memory something terribly terribly wrong), but it emphasized several things:
  1. that each step that seems so rote in the classroom is actually the work of many people for many years folded into what theorist Bruno Latour calls "a black box" (in his great book Science in Action, also a link to mit, hee!); and

  2. that even though these scientists made erroneous conclusions, the process by which they arrived at these conclusions based on the evidence they had at hand was sound, and this process of logic, experimentation, and thought was the scientific method at work and would stand us in good stead

However, it wasn't until following a link from Joyce DiDonato's website that I discovered some even more awesome happenings at MIT with respect to music. I don't even know what to call Tod Machover but the links following from his webpage link to some really interesting musical project, only some of which will be laid out here.

Jeux Deux I first mis-read as Jeau d'Eaux, perhaps a play on Ravel's scintillating piano piece.

The actual Jeux Deux is pretty cool, though the premise sounds rather odd at first. The piece is for hyperpiano (so far as I can tell, a Yamaha Disklavier) and orchestra. What's different about this is what happens to the Disklavier in performance; software has been written to cause the Disklavier to respond to the player in realtime. According to the website:
Jeux Deux utilizes a number of novel approaches to live interaction using a Yamaha Disklavier. All MIDI data generated by the player is transformed with custom software written in MAX/MSP to accompany and augment the live piano playing. Among the various processes are:

* real-time transposition varying by range
* real-time aleatoric improvisation based on live piano parameterization
* pre-composed sequence triggering
* "pebble in a bucket": single notes cause waves to 'splash' out from the center
* textural "blobs" of notes generated using gaussian distributions
* "knob blob": a textural blob of notes generated from knobs which are turned on a MIDI controller to alter range, distribution, speed, and velocity of notes

MIDI data and mode changes are transmitted separately via local area network using Open Sound Control to the graphics computer which generates live visualization of the music being played. This produces images that can accurately "notate" in real-time the interaction between the pianist and the notes being played by the Disklavier (hence the title Jeux Deux, a "game of two").

Here's a very short video clip of a performance of Jeux Deux:

so, ya...MIT rules!

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