A high-power show at the Museum of Science
EST on Thursday, February 3, 2005
BY RICK MASSIMO Providence Journal Pop Music Writer
Talk about an electric performer!
Tomorrow night at Boston's Museum of Science,
composer Christine Southworth's latest piece, Zap!, will
be performed by eight musicians, three robotic instruments
and the star of the show, the museum's 40-foot-high Van
de Graaff generator.
The piece came about, Southworth says,
when she was discussing with museum officials the possibility
of her group, Ensemble Robot, playing in the museum. One
of the officials suggested the Theatre of Electricity,
where the generator is housed, as a possible venue. Southworth,
who says she's been fascinated by Van de Graaff generators
since she was an infant, immediately saw a way to work
the generator into the show.
Southworth says that the generator, "basically
a lightning machine," is capable of producing huge
buzzing zaps of electricity.
"I'm sort of treating it as a non-pitched
percussion instrument," Southworth says. "I'm
not really using it to be musical." The effect, she
says, is "more multimedia."
On the other hand, when the voltage is
lowered, the generator produces a "corona effect" resulting
in "a purple light glowing around the machine. It
makes a softer, staticky sound that's really beautiful."
The generator, which produces 1.5 million
volts of electricity, can be controlled with the museum's
equipment, but Southworth and robotic engineer Leila Hasan
are trying to make it work with their own interface as
well. Either way, Southworth says, it's not possible to
control the generator's musical pitch, "but we can
actually control the rhythms quite well."
Southworth studies computer music and
multimedia composition at Brown University, and she's one
of the founders of Ensemble Robot, a group of robotic musical
instruments. The interface between the carbon-based and
the digital has long been her fascination.
Southworth's father was one of the inventors
of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), the program
that allows computerized instruments to talk to people
and to each other.
"I learned how to make music using
a sequencer when I was 5," she says.
Her background was mostly in graphic design,
which in this day and age means working on computers. But
when Southworth got to MIT, "I learned . . . that
I could make music the same way I could make other things."
She started writing music in 2000 -- "I
never studied traditional composition, so I knew nothing
basically" -- and worked first in Balinese music,
partially because there is no notation.
Still, a fondness for early techno pioneers
such as the German group Kraftwerk remained.
"It's more about the precision," Southworth
says. "You can do complex rhythms and have it interlock.
All my [early] music was too complicated for people to
play well. And a lot of that was the weakness of the composer."
Ensemble Robot, a collection of robotic
musical instruments created with the help of designers
and builders from MIT and RISD, is able to play "very
precisely rhythmic music that was like computer music,
but on real instruments," Southworth says. "They
can, of course, play very fast and precisely, because they're
playing MIDI sequences" -- computerized sequences
of notes, but making acoustic, rather than speaker-generated,
Southworth still writes music for people
to perform. The humans in Zap! will play flute, keyboard,
cello, guitar, bass and percussion. Southworth herself
will sing "this high, crazy soprano part that none
of the singers I talked to would do. . . .
"I think I know better now what people
can do and what they can't do. Now I'm really writing for
the robots and for the people, and combining their strengths,
and what they do well."
The show is at the Boston Museum of Science's
Theatre of Electricity, Route 28, Boston, tomorrow night
at 6:30. The show is free with museum admission -- $14
for adults, $11 for children, $12 for senior citizens and
free to museum members. For more information, call (617)