makes music outside the rules
Tech Talk: February 2, 2005
MIT alumna Christine Southworth's latest
composition for generator, robots, instruments and voices
features some high-voltage star-power -- the 40-foot-tall
Van de Graaff (VDG) generator at the Museum of Science
Southworth, who graduated from MIT
in 2002 in mathematics with a minor in music, incorporates
the flashing lights and static from the popular de Graaff
generator along with robotic instruments and live performers
in her new piece, "Zap! Music for Van de Graaff
Generator, Robots, Instruments and Voices."
"Zap!" will premiere on Friday,
Feb. 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum of Science's (MOS)
Theater of Electricity.
The de Graaff is the largest of its
kind in the world and is capable of producing up to 1.5
million volts of electricity
Like Southworth, the generator, is,
in a sense, also an alumnus of MIT. Designed and built
at MIT in the 1930s by MIT Professor Robert J. Van de
Graaff, the generator was originally used as a research
tool in early atom smashing and high-energy X-ray experiments.
MIT gave the generator to the Museum of Science (MOS)
in 1956, where it is now used in daily demonstrations
of lightning and electricity.
"Zap!" is an offshoot of a
project started by Southworth and Leila Hasan (M.Eng.
and S.B. Electrical Engineering 2001), called Ensemble
Robot, a small collection of robotic musicians who produce
both simple and complex patterns of sound from acoustic
sources including strings, pipes, drums and wooden keys. "Zap!" will
include at least three of these robots but "not
all the robots are happy playing in proximity to the
high voltage," Hasan said.
Southworth and Alexandra Andersson
(S.B. Electrical Science and Engineeering & S.M.
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science 2003) will
be responsible for triggering various "zaps" from
the generator and its surrounding Tesla coils. At the
same time, Hasan will control variations in voltage using
her MIT thesis project: a musical interface/sensing device,
inspired by the Theremin, that she calls a "termenova."
Human musicians rounding out the cast
are Ramon Castillo (conductor/music director), Akili
Haynes (percussion/voice), Blake Newman (bass), Erik
Nugent (Lyricon/voice), Sachi Sato (keyboard), Mei-mi
Lan (keyboard), Christine Southworth (voice), Rebecca
Zook (cello) and Jeff Lieberman (guitar/keyboard), an
MIT alum (S.B. Mathematics and Physics 2000, S.M. Mechanical
Engineering) currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Media Arts
Other contributors to the project include
Mike Mayo (sound design), Yu-cheng Hsu and Giles Hall
(programming) and MIT alums Luke Phelan (S.B. Humanities
2002--documentation) and Kevin McCormick (S.B. Electrical
Engineering and Computer Science 1999--lighting design).
Southworth is currently pursuing a master's
degree in Computer Music and Multimedia Composition at
Brown University and continues studies in composition
with Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music Evan
Ziporyn, with whom she has also edited and mixed two
records. She has received awards and fellowships from
the American Composers Forum, The Ernest Bloch Music
Festival, Bang on a Can Summer Institute of Music and
the MIT Eloranta Fellowship. A member of MIT's Gamelan
Galak Tika, she also teaches electronic and Balinese
music composition to children and adults in Cambridge
ArtTalk: Christine Southworth, composer
MIT Tech Talk: February 2, 2005
Lynn Heinemann of the Office of the
Arts asked composer Christine Southworth why she chose
to cast the 40-foot de Graaff generator in "Zap!"
Q. Why a Van de Graaff generator?
A. The Van de Graaff generator is spectacular.
It makes huge sparks of lightning, big booming sounds;
or it can make a beautiful glowing corona with a sweet
humming buzz. I came up with this idea with Andy Cavatorta,
who works at the museum, and it just made sense. For
this piece, I've treated the Van de Graaff generator
as a combination percussive instrument and light show.
Q. How did you get the idea for this
A. About two years ago I decided that
I needed to make robots to play my music, because it
was too hard for people to play. This was more of an
issue with my notation than anything else, but I thought
it would be amazing to be able to play electronic music,
as a midi sequence, on real instruments. My friend Leila
Hasan builds robots, so soon after that we started applying
for grants to make this happen, and Ensemble Robot was
born. With generous support from the LEF Foundation,
we've spent the past year developing this project.
We went to the museum about a year ago
with the idea of putting the robots in the museum as
entertainment, perhaps in the cafeteria or lobby. While
we were exploring possibilities with that, Andy Cavatorta
mentioned the Van de Graaff generator and this project
just exploded into being.
Q. Does "Zap!" fall into an
identifiable musical category?
A. My music could be called "post-minimalist
acoustic electronica," amplified. I've been influenced
by classical music--Vivaldi, Bach--and by modern music--Steve
Reich, Terry Riley, Michael Gordon, Louis Andriessen,
Arnold Dreyblatt, Meredith Monk, and of course by my
teacher, Evan Ziporyn. I've also been influenced by electronica,
jazz, hip-hop and rock and roll, specifically Kraftwerk,
the Beatles, and Tribe Called Quest. And video game music.
And gamelan! I would say my music is pretty; it rocks,
grooves, and follows no rules really. My teacher at Brown,
Shep Shapiro, said "This music doesn't break the
rules; it rather renders the rules obsolete." I
A version of this article
appeared in the February 2, 2005 issue of MIT Tech Talk
(Volume 49, Number 16).
Photo / Evan Ziporyn
Christine Southworth (S.B. 2002) poses with the Van
de Graaff generator that provides static and flashing
lights for her musical composition. “Zap!” is
a seven-part piece featuring the former atom-smasher
in concert with flutes, guitar, cello, bass, piano,
robots and human voices.
The Van de Graaff generator is the largest
of its kind and can produce up to 1.5 million volts of
electricity. In Southworth’s composition, zaps
from the generator will be triggered by humans; voltage
will be controlled by a “termenova,” a musical
Christine Southworth - Lynn Heinemann of the Office
of the Arts asked composer Christine Southworth why
she chose to cast the 40-foot de Graaff generator in "Zap!" 2/2/2005