A high-power show at the Museum of Science
01:00 AM 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, sounds.

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) 905-6804.