by Katie Bilinski
Members of the Berklee Interarts Ensemble
At first glance, Pythagoras and Coltrane seem like an awkward juxtaposition. The customary attitude assumes that some humans have been programmed to understand the analytical math and sciences while the talents of others favor creativity and the arts. However, the exploration of symmetry, patterns and ratios has not only been the obsession of scientists like Pythagoras but the tool of composers from Hildegard of Bingen to Bartok and Coltrane himself. Subject to the truths of the natural world, the arts and sciences find themselves intertwined in an eternal relationship. Acutely aware of this correlation, the students and faculty of Berklee’s Electronic Production and Design Department embrace the symbiosis of knowledge and artistic dialogue—the conscious collision used to develop new means of creative expression and global communication.
In spring 2010, faculty member Neil Leonard established the Berklee Interarts Ensemble, in which students collaborated outside the classroom to explore sonification and aesthetic issues inspired by the real-time signal processing and computer-driven models from Leonard’s Nocturnal Sounds from Hohle Fels (2009). Written for alto saxophone and laptop, this piecework was composed after the discovery at the Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany of a 35,000-year-old bone flute, the earliest known musical instrument. Mr. Leonard remarked that, “the composition reflects on the intersection of emerging technologies and the genesis of artistic languages.” The group’s research was reconstructed into their debut performance, a live broadcast to the VideoFormes International Video Art and Digital Culture Festival in Clermont-Ferrand, France. The ensemble included Berklee faculty, students, and alumni as well as School of the Museum of Fine Arts students. The result was a stunning display of sonic arts interpreted through physical movement, which was captured and rendered by video projection.
This performance merely scratched the surface of the musical possibilities of sonification. With the help of astrophysicist Kelly Snook of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, Neil Leonard along with students John Hull and Enrico de Trizio started to explore solar data from the Advanced Composition Explorer Science Center, with an emphasis on models that are valuable to scientific sonification research. They found that seemingly non-musical information could be used for musical purposes: using the motion of celestial objects as a model for mixing, particularly panning; manipulating pitched material, using non-linear iterative functions to synthesize related harmonies in real-time by using the data as a control source for real-time pitch shifting; and utilizing noise as an artistic resource.
Their diligent effort resulted in two pieces presented at the International Conference on Auditory Display in Washington, D.C. The first composition, realized by John Hull, utilized celestial motion as a model for mixing. Inspired by Partita Tripla con Galelei, a composition by Maura Capuzzo, Marco Braggion and Neil Leonard which also used solar system models to dictate sonic spatialization, John researched and programmed orbits in MaxMSP and printed them into Logic 9 as panning algorithms to alter layers of harmonious material. The four-minute production is a collage of processed samples, including vocal excerpts, that requires sound dispersion in which each voice originates from a unique location, such as a 12.2 surround sound or a similar 360-degree diffusion system. The haunting melodic elements and unique panning cause the listener to be overcome with otherworldly sensation, one of alien beauty.
For the second composition, Enrico De Trizio converted ACE solar wind data in MaxMSP into a MIDI control source for sample playback and modulation of granular synthesis, ring modulating, and physical modeling. This dense mosaic of noise-based sounds provides a stark contrast to John’s slowly evolving layers of sound. The frenzy immediately grabs the listener’s attention and the chaotic piece evolves in such a way that listeners are continually drawn in with the development of a groove, which even incorporates a bass line from Philadelphia legend Lee Smith. The transitions from traditional music to noise keep the listener on his toes throughout the entire piece.
Well-received in Washington, the Berklee Interarts Ensemble continues to push forward with new ambitious projects, including interdisciplinary-artwork performed by a network of collaborators in Boston and Italy as well as several other countries. Their quest for expression not only reaches deeper into the development of the arts but also provides a platform for cooperation between intellectuals of different fields, backgrounds, and countries. With knowledge and collaboration, the potential for discovery is limitless.