Musical Minds Meet Musical Machines at CalArts

Lauren Pratt
Associate Producer for Music at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater
(Abridged for Creative Outlook Magazine)

image1From its early, heady days, California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, Calif., has always stood for progress, not only creative and conceptual, but also technological — developing new tools in making new, unprecedented art. Today, The Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts is forging ahead with one of the Institute’s most ambitious efforts in the field of creative tech — the Program in Music Technology:Intelligence, Interaction and Design (IID). This Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)program, says Music Dean David Rosenboom, is radically expanding the envelope of contemporary music making with completely original instruments and ingenious uses for conventional instruments in live performance.

“Music Tech: IID is changing the very definition of what musical instruments can be, and what it means to‘play’ new ‘intelligent’ instruments, instruments which can actually restructure themselves in response to how they are played,” Rosenboom says. “A musical instrument can be an interface between one form of intelligence, such as a human performer, and another, such as an invented intelligent system. Conceived in such a way, instruments offer much more than a one-to-one response to a playing action: press a key, get a sound. They can activate compositional systems, produce variations on what is being played, re-order the ways they produce sound, and even call up entire multimedia, multisensory worlds.”

Bearing out Rosenboom’s words was a recent performance at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) by the KarmetiK Machine Orchestra led by Ajay Kapur, director of Music Tech: IID.As the house lights dimmed, a crimson wash fell over the stage and black-clad performers took their places at their stations. Toward the back, an eight-foot motorized “rain stick” turned slowly, hypnotically, generating a drone fromfalling sand, lentils, and BB-gun pellets. The first movement of Digital Sankirna began with the intricate twangs of the sitar, plucked by Kapur; it was then followed by the haunting, microtonal slide of the dilruba bowed by Curtis Bahn. Soon other instruments joined in,building textures, colors and rhythms. Some of these were played by the members of the orchestra; others played… themselves. They were playing not in the way a drum machine can play itself, but actually playing—responding to and interacting with the shifts, nuances and complexity of the overall performance.

The KarmetiK (“karma + kinetic = Energy of Karma”) Machine Orchestra’s program was divided into three components: “Interfaces” (i.e., points of interaction between two systems),“Robots,” and “People.” Each instrument on stage, as much as it might have looked like its traditional namesake, was either an interface or a robot. Each was designed, built and programmed by either students in or mentors to the Program in Music Technology: Intelligence, Interaction and Design, who include world-famous music technology innovators Trimpin, Perry Cook, Curtis Bahn and the classically trained Kapur.

What can a Music Tech: IID student expect to achieve in this program? “We teach students engineering skills; how to do software programming; how to do electrical engineering, how to design their circuits, how to design new instruments for the future,” says Kapur. His colleague Martijn Zwartjes adds, they learn “how to build their own synthesizers, build their own way of making computer-generated sound from scratch, develop their own sound.” For students who come into the program from a classical background, “we teach them how to put sensors on their instruments,how to make their instruments talk to their computers. We teach them how to make their trumpet, let’s say, sound like it’s from Mars—but only their Mars. They decide what they want to hear.”

Today, career opportunities in

music technology today are ever-growing, ranging from recording to software design, to multimedia, to the gaming industry, to new instrument design, to music and film production. For this reason, says Kapur, CalArts’ music techcurricula have always tried to develop the conceptual and technical foundations on which students can then build in any number of these closely related fields.“Most students are also performers and composers in some significant measure,”he says. “So the most important thing is always the music.”drum set at age 8, Kapur went on to earn an undergraduate degree at Princeton University and a PhD from University of Victoria. Following his doctorate, The Herb Alpert School of Music was the perfect place for Kapur to land. The Institute already boasted a well-developed Program in Music Technology and arich history of developing new arts technologies — including electronic music synthesizers, video synthesizers, software for multimedia performance, software for learning, advanced signal processing, musical interfaces with the human nervous system, and live long-distance tele-presence performance (the Centerfor Experiments in Art, Information and Technology [CEAIT]). CalArts, moreover,was home to two of the great contemporary masters of Indian music, tabla player Swapan Chaudhuri and sarodist Aashish Khan, with whom Kapur continues his classical Indian music practice.

Meason Wiley (BFA 09), Music Tech: IID’s post-graduate assistant, started studying in the program during its transition to the current set-up. “Ajay was behind the shift from most Music Tech: IID students using the laptop as their primary instrument to having them build instruments to interface with their computers instead. I came to CalArts to learn more about audio production and sound design, and I am leaving with many more career skills than I had ever imagined. The students believe that they own this program, and it’s not unusual to see them working 18-hour days on their instruments.”

The Program in Music Technology: Intelligence, Interaction and Design has now developed a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) curriculum. Pending approval by the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), the MFA program expects to enroll its first students in the fall of 2011.

To see a video about the KarmetiK Machine Orchestra and the making of its instruments, go to

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