Center for Music Technology redefines music interaction

What is music?

For such a simple-sounding question, it’s one that carries a lot of clout. For one person, it might be a life-long passion and fulfilling career as a composer or musician. For another, it might just be noise pumped out of an iPod en route to class, helpfully blocking out thoughts about an upcoming exam.

Whatever it is, it’s hard to define.

One reason for this is that, just as painting has evolved from Da Vinci and Michelangelo to Warhol and Pollock, music has evolved over time, too.

Watching a parent recognize an elevator tune as a top-10 hit from college or a grandparent grumble about the “noise” kids listen to today is a classic bit of evidence that the times are changing.

Tech is playing its part in these changes, too, by applying its resources as a tech-savvy school to see what new innovations it can bring about in the field of music. Last November, the Center for Music Technology (CMT) opened its doors and began researching how technology can be used to advance music, both at the academic, artistic, and consumer levels.

The Center, which currently offers a Masters in Science in Music Technology, and is working on a Ph.D. program, is a collaboration between several groups on campus, including the Department of Music, the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Graphics, Visualizations and Usability Center.

Gil Weinberg, the Director of Music Technology at Tech and one of three central faculty members in the CMT, said that the Center’s goal is to help innovate and reshape all aspects of music.

Weinberg said, “[At the Center], we want to reinvent the way we listen to, play and compose music.”

Researchers at the CMT certainly seem to be meeting that goal, as a number of projects revolutionizing every aspect of music have been completed in the past or are currently in the works.

Some programs, like ZooZBeat, a recently developed smart phone application, are even aiming to redefine the traditional relationship between composers, performers, and consumers.

The CMT website describes the application as a “gesture-based musical studio,” which, in layman’s terms, means that users can compose music on their iPhone by tapping, shaking and singing into their device.

The program is easy to learn (composing a short techno beat took a grand total of five minutes after finishing the download), but still features more than enough tools for more serious users to go beyond creating little snippets and composing some really impressive full pieces.

Other projects even go so far as to almost make composers and performers unnecessary. The CMT’s drum-playing robot Haile has drawn a lot of press recently, and rightfully so, considering it’s able to mimic, accompany and spin off of human partners better than most humans can.

By listening to a given rhythm, Haile is capable of playing it back verbatim, and even composing and performing his own accompaniment in real-time.

In a similar vein, Shimon, a newly-developed robotic marimba player in the center, builds off of Haile by throwing pitch into the mix.

According to the CMT website, Shimon “utilizes melodic and harmonic perception and improvisation algorithms, adding to the rhythmic improvisation approach taken by Haile.”

Videos of both robots performing are available on the CMT’s website.

Others still look to expand the role of sound into areas where it typically fears to tread. A recently developed “audible aquarium,” for example, observes the activity and color in a typical fish tank and translates it into a series of sounds based on what is happening at the moment.

According to Weinberg, the CMT is also beginning to move into another aspect of music: the economic one.

Weinberg said, “We’re focusing on trying to pick projects from the center and make them into companies and commercialize them.”

As an example, he points to ZooZBeat, which is available for purchase on the iTunes app store, and is beginning to develop into a social network.

On the application’s website, users can listen to and download other users’ compositions and upload their own.

Of course, developing all these technologies wouldn’t do much good if they weren’t put to use. This is where Sonic Generator comes in.

Founded in 2006, the group’s executive director, Jason Freeman, describes Sonic Generator as “the contemporary music ensemble-in-residence at Georgia Tech dedicated to using technology to transform the ways in which we compose, perform and listen to music.”

If this sounds similar to the CMT’s purpose, it’s not without good reason, as the two groups often work closely with each other, and Freeman is also a major player in the CMT.

Freeman said, “We often use technology developed at the Center in our performances and hope to do even more of that in the future.”

Freeman points to a recent collaboration and its unique results as a good example of the groups’ relations.

Freeman said, “Last year, for instance, we used mobile phone software developed at the Center to perform a work by composer John Cage. It was originally scored for chorus; our version was for four iPhones and video animation.”

Technology is only part of what the group does, though. Sonic Generator is made up of a group of very talented musicians from throughout the Atlanta area.

Freeman said, “The core members of Sonic Generator are some of the best classical musicians in Atlanta. Many of them are members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Part of the group’s mission is to bring these amazing musicians to campus to collaborate with our faculty and students and present the results through concerts.”

Freeman himself deals with the electronics for the group, though he says he rarely steps out in the limelight himself.

“Typically I am sitting at a laptop and a mixing console with a few of my students rather than actually performing on stage,” said Freeman.

When asked how he got involved in this field, Freeman said, “I’ve always been involved in composing music and have always been a bit of a computer geek—over the years, these areas of my life began to merge. These days, my research focuses on using technology to facilitate collaborative creative experiences.”

The group will be holding a concert on Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. in the Alumni House.

The concert is free to the public, and will focus on efforts by French and American artists to, as a blurb on the group’s website states, “[explore] the connections between French and American musicians in their explorations of technology.”

The performance will feature several traditional instruments, but a heavy dose of tech can be expected as well, as a sizable portion of the pieces will feature an electronic component.

The concert in November is the first for the program’s 2009-10 season. There are currently two other concerts scheduled in the spring of which no details have been listed yet. Check for more information about Sonic Generator’s performances this year.