Virginia Center for Computer Music Celebrates 20 Years with TechnoSonics Tour

November 12, 2008

November 12, 2008 — When Judith Shatin founded the Virginia Center for Computer Music 20 years ago, her goal was to introduce the use of computer technology into the curriculum and into the creation of music at the University of Virginia.

"This was a time when there was a lot of change and ferment going on in the field, and I thought it would be fantastic to be able to take advantage of that for our students and creative work," said Shatin, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in the McIntire Department of Music.

The VCCM's creation coincided with new University initiatives to support and explore the academic application of computers. ITC systems analyst Pete Yadlowsky was a great help in this endeavor.

"We had a lot of help," Shatin said.

Today, the VCCM is celebrating two decades of composing and creating music using computer technology. The center has grown with the addition of faculty, classes and program offerings, and attracts students and faculty who are researching and producing work in multi-channel digital audio, interactive multimedia performance, installation art, robotics and network music.

"The interest has grown astronomically and we cannot keep pace with it. We cannot offer enough programs at the undergraduate level and we are also getting fantastic applicants to our graduate program," Shatin said. "And the contribution of our technical director, Dave Topper, who joined the program in 1997, has been key to the forward momentum that we are still experiencing."

Matthew Burtner, associate professor of music and associate director of the VCCM, joined Shatin in 2001. He defines the role of the computer in the exploration of digital music as "taking priority in the creation of the sound or the instrument itself. It is in the foreground of it, not as something simply supporting the creation of music."

Most recently, Ted Coffey, whose work includes acoustic and electronic chamber music, multimedia pieces, interactive installations and songs, joined the faculty in 2006.
The faculty's engagement in both acoustic and computer music is a defining characteristic of the VCCM, and has attracted graduate students with a wide range of attributes and artistic approaches to the state's first music Ph.D. program, which began in 2001. One track is Composition and Computer Technologies.  

"I know for me, one of the main things that brought me here was knowing the diversity within the faculty and the students," said fourth-year graduate student Troy Rogers. "There's not any dogma or there's not one type of composition that gets done here; rather, we have a pretty wide array of interests and abilities that allow us to learn a lot from one another."

"It is extremely unusual to have a composition faculty in which all of the faculty are engaged in both acoustic and computer music," Shatin said. "We combine them and do not make a distinction — this is digital, this is acoustic — but rather, we are looking at the field of music broadly construed in all its wonderful diversity."

That diversity and expertise is evident in the TechnoSonics "Play" anniversary tour this fall. Music faculty and students put together a program that showcases the innovative research and music being created in the VCCM, which they presented in venues in Delaware, New York City, and Richmond, Va. The tour will make a final stop Friday at 8 p.m. at Live Arts in Charlottesville. The concert is free.

"The spirit of the tour is to look at the broader issues of creativity and the excitement of the new — the excitement of exploring," Burtner said.

Since 1994, TechnoSonics festivals have brought cutting-edge performers and composers to Charlottesville to perform with VCCM talent. This year, the offerings are all home-grown compositions, Shatin said.

Her composition for the concert, "Penelope's Song," is scored for amplified soprano sax and electronic sounds that are made from the recording and processing of the sounds of a weaver working on her wooden looms.

For his composition "Sxueak," Burtner creates sounds with his metasaxophone, which extends the acoustic saxophone's sound output by retrofitting it with an onboard computer microprocessor that allows for computer interaction. The sounds produced by squeaky toys played by members of the audience as they explore the squeezability, pokeability, twistability, rhythmic punctuation and inhale/exhale characteristics of their "instruments" are combined with those produced by the metasaxophone in this theater piece that is unique each time it is performed.

Coffey's "Ecce Vox: Noise," a meditation on the meaning of noise for computer music video, has been featured on the tour.

Included in the student offerings is Internet artist Peter Traub's "It Space," an installation version of his Web-based creation ( in which he invites people to choose from a series of recorded everyday sounds and mix them to create their own individual compositions. Traub describes the site as his take on social networking.

Lanier Sammons' composition, "Better Play the Note You Know," invites performers to improvise — with the restriction that they can only use a single pitch. Maintaining the chosen pitch, performers are free to bring to the forefront timber, rhythm and ensemble interplay to create this improvisational piece.

"Magicicada," by Jonathan Zorn, is scored for two guitars and computer. The composition simultaneously creates electronic speech and pre-linguistic vocalization using a guitar-driven computer program. The two guitars work together to trigger sample sounds from the International Phonetic Alphabet with one guitar playing vowels and the other consonants.

Scott Barton, Steve Kemper and Troy Rogers teamed up to create "Study No. 1," which explores the capabilities of the newest members of the VCCM team, "PAM" and "MADI." PAM, a poly-tangent automatic multi monochord, and MADI, a multi-mallet automatic drumming instrument, are robotic string and drum instruments the trio created that are manipulated by what the composers program into the computer. The robots are not recreations of instruments a human would play, but allow for exploration beyond the capabilities of a human-played composition.

"We are not building these things to mimic human performers. We are building them to see what we can creatively do with them," Kemper said.

"Part of the fun is finding out what these machines are capable of. What kinds of sounds can they produce? Things we haven't heard before," Barton said. "What are some avenues that we as composers can create new music, create new expression?"

The evening's program includes numerous other creative explorations by students and faculty.
Over the years "there has been a huge widening of approaches and that has been unusual and I think it speaks to the kind of infectious quality to the imagination that is characteristic of our program," Shatin said. "What's exciting is the range of music and kinds of things being done."

— By Jane Ford