Our department has a tradition in exploring music technology that goes back to 1993. The PerfTech (Performance Technology) initiative began in 2005 in an effort to unify the Music and Theatre Arts programs in the Department of Performance Studies through strengths in technology-based performance across disciplines. PerfTech courses and events have also proven valuable experiences for students majoring in other artistic and STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) eager to merge experiences in music, theatre, or design with their majors and to gain experiences working with contemporary tools and issues. These experiences demonstrate how technology can connect with the human element and how technology is impacting our expression. Students join faculty in exploring the new and also rediscovering the traditional.
In PerfTech courses, student works focus on what we havecome to call “technology-based performance” instead of “electronic music,” etc. Technology-based performance implies that the technology plays a substantial role in the performance, more than simply standing in for acoustic musicians or hand-painted sets. Student works seek structures that apply technology in such a way that the meaning of the work would completely change or fall apart if the technology were removed.
Our students achieve regional, national, and international attention for their work. Experiences include:
- Annual participation in the Electric LaTex festival of computer music by Louisiana and Texas university students
- Several pieces included in regional and international editions of the 60×60 concert series run by New York-based organization Vox Novus
- International Computer Music Conference (ICMC)
- International Conference on Auditory Display (ICAD)
- Music in Architecture—Architecture in Music international symposium
- Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, an international competition hosted at Georgia Tech
- FrammentAzioni dance and electronic music concert in Italy published on DVD
- Digital Media Valencia festival (Spain)
- Tucci Russo Studio per L’Arte Contemporanea (contemporary art gallery in Turin, Italy)
Whereas personal computers have largely caught up with university facilities, our department focuses on providing what would be difficult or costly for students to obtain on their own: cutting edge performance laboratories and live performance experiences that push the limits of equipment, facilities, and fellow performers, so that our graduates are accustomed to a forward-thinking mindset and innovative applications of technology. We hope that these experiences prepare them to innovate on their own when called for, to unflinchingly embrace unusual applications of technology when presented to them, and to rediscover traditional performance through new eyes.
Mainstage productions have been one forum for bringing music and theatre technology together including the use video, projections, and media servers. Student design assistants were responsible for video content, design, and editing for the production of My Children! My Africa! (Fugard, 1989), which included video throughout the entire production. This para-narrative informed and sometimes contested the dramatic action, as well as provided younger audience members with a visual experience of apartheid. The production of TH3 B3GGAR’S OP3RA (Gay, 1728/2011) employed two Axon Media Servers with specialized theatrical content as well as original content developed by student and faculty designers. Using multiple projectors and the collage technology built into the media servers, designers were able to create full stage images with video and subtitles.
Contact microphones were installed in the stage for Ojen Kaleidoscope (Aggie Players, 2006) in order to amplify an actor’s foot stomps during a soliloquy in which he mimics the weapons firing around him. Electronic processing turned the stomps into room-shaking booms. The final scene of this work featured a single chosen character climbing a ladder leading an unknown place with hopes of finding a path for all the characters to escape the fighting. The sounds of climbing the ladder were transmitted through contact mics to a digital delay loop, allowing the footsteps to accumulate, underscoring how that character’s journey represented the hope of everyone finding a path to safety.
In 2009, the Department of Performance Studies partnered with the Department of Computer Science and Engineering to produce A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare, c. 1590) incorporating robots as companions to the fairies portrayed by humans. This innovative work was featured in Wired (Squatriglia, 2009) and also led to multiple publications for researchers from both departments (Guerin, 2011; Murphy et al, 2011). Students involved in the production were asked to work with the robots and their handlers throughout the rehearsal and production process to create a cohesive coupling of Elizabethan drama with modern rescue robots. The collaboration was so successful that future projects are being discussed, including a children’s play featuring robots and puppetry and student designed robot art installations, as inquiries into design as performance.
PerfTech efforts don’t focus only on overt applications of new music or technology, however. Mainstage performances in Theatre Arts each semester often present opportunities to apply innovative technology in meaningful ways- but ways that support the traditional elements of the performance and avoid stealing attention. In a period performance of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Hampton, 1985), this meant preparing sample libraries of rococo period (18th century) instruments. We strategically configured and arranged music for them to allow two keyboardists to imitate a period orchestra. In My Children! My Africa! set in apartheid South Africa, students made studio recordings of an a capella student ensemble in a modular way so that tracks could be recombined live with flexible timings to keep up with actors’ timing variations from one show to the next. Although the performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream discussed above involved many overt technological elements, we also used algorithms to define behaviors of randomly-controlled dog barks and cricket sounds to provide infinitely varied but natural sounding backdrops evoking a rural residence and the deep forest (respectively) without worrying about running out of recorded material. This also allowed us to easily shape the cricket sounds to subtly support the rise and fall of tension and changes in temperature through the course of the play. Similar algorithms were used to trigger weapon sounds in a student-derived performance called Ojen Kaleidoscope (Aggie Players, 2006). Since the play took place in multiple locations in relation to the war zone, we used a surround sound speaker system and designed a “signature” through the loudness and position of each virtual sound source to identify each setting.
All Music majors are required to take one course in music technology, which gives them a certain level of familiarity with music production technology as in most programs. Beyond that, however, the semester-long experience of listening to and composing technology-based abstract music provides them with listening skills that give them a keen perception of any kind of sound and a deeper understanding of how any kind of music “works” in more broad, self-honest, and design-inspired terms like texture, gesture, motive, and the rise and release of tension. Even if students intend to work in acoustic traditional music, they will have the skills to ensure that supporting technology does not interfere with their performance, and so that they can argue the benefits of using live acoustic performers instead of replacing them with recordings or synthesized copies. In an age when it feels like any performance can be retrieved from anywhere with a pocket-sized device, it is essential for a performer to understand and relate the importance of live performance and to put technology in the service of their work.
In a music programming course, which uses the Max/MSP/Jitter graphic programming environment, we focus on students making music over code—recording a brief musical performance—with every programming assignment. Students begin by connecting large “readymade” portions of programs and through the course of the semester work their way into building more of their programs themselves, but the goal for musical deliverables is kept consistently high throughout the course. This helps to keep students thinking about the end product, musical performance, without being overwhelmed with how to get from step one to step two in a complex program, leaving musicality as an afterthought. This approach is enhanced by our use of weblogs for sharing student creations, so each student can experience a variety of performances made using the same materials.
A newly developed course for Theatre Arts majors emphasizes the elements of design and communication through Adobe Photoshop renderings, sound editing, video editing, and devised performance. Creating traditional theatrical artifacts in non-traditional ways the students begin to shift their perspective on the possibilities created by using technology. The class also includes discourse on the benefits and missteps made possible by using technology in a largely analog and physical discipline. At the end of the semester, students are asked to create a devised intermedia performance with the following questions in mind: What effect has technology had on your voice? What are you trying to communicate to an audience? Why is a particular use of technology the best way to express this idea? The resulting projects have been thoughtful, challenging, and have used technology to reframe arguments and discussions the class had tested throughout the semester.