Pied Piper of the Computer Age Education: Chris Patton makes music. Literally. He mixes and matches odd sounds, or creates his own, then shares with students his love of technology and beautiful noises.

July 02, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

He is alone on the stage. About 150 fidgety third-graders sprawl on the floor before him. They are watching him, waiting for him to do something, almost daring him to seize the elusive spirit of their attention.

Chris Patton introduces himself to the children of the William S. James Elementary School in Abingdon and rises to the challenge.

He is one of those endomorphic men whose body is made up almost entirely of convex surfaces. His thick curly hair is shot through with threads of steel gray; his beard crawls up his round, smiling face. He wears glasses, a light cotton shirt, a thin tie. His trousers are dark, his shoes purple.

Chris Patton is a performer on various instruments, a composer of choral music and operas. He is capable of sudden changes. In an instant he'll transform himself from a mild-mannered, run-of-the-mill musician into the mighty "Wave Weaver."

"I have lots of sounds," he tells his squirming audience in a creaky voice. "I am going to weeeeve all those sounds together."

He has the equipment to do it. He turns to his synthesizer for help and calls forth the sound of a dog barking a well-known 18th century tune ("That's Mozart's Eine Kleine Bark-musik," he cracks), a cuckoo clock, a ball bouncing against a wall (or is it somebody clucking his tongue inside his cheek?).

While this is going on Chris -- "The Wave Weaver" -- Patton is doing a shuffle and banging a keyboard. He versifies his message:

Technology, that's the key.

If you learn to use it,

It can set you free.

More sounds escape from the circle of his equipment. He is a one-man band -- which is how he describes himself. "I can make all the sounds of the orchestra," he promises.

More sounds emerge not usually associated with music, but which have been pressed into the service of a kind of syncopation: an explosion, a motor starting, a cannon firing, a cowbell, a saxophone -- no! that's not coming out of the machine: He's playing that himself.

In the background, accompanying him on the sax, a many-throated men's chorus rises like a heavy curtain of sound.


The tool that can set you free.

Digital tech-nol-ogy

And a lot of work,

That's the key!"

Do the kids like it? Well, they've stopped fidgeting. They are rapt -- wrapped up in the many strands of his sound, delivered into the web of the Wave Weaver. Their arms, their heads, their bodies are swaying uniformly, like undulating swamp grass nudged by a gentle current. As they are drawn even deeper into his spell, he brings forth his video harp. It is a strange and rare machine.

One of only eight

There are only eight of these in the world, and nowhere are they used with the kind of determined purpose and productivity Patton applies to his.

The video harp doesn't look like a harp. It is made of amber-colored plexiglass and black aluminum. It doesn't look like anything musical at all, rather like a large radio, or tangerine wedge, if you can imagine such an oxymoron.

But to play it, Patton embraces it as he would a harp, coming around it with both arms; he places his fingers here and there on the illuminated plexiglass, which has marks on it like those of a gauge or dial of some kind.

How does it sound? How does it work?

The sound Patton draws from his instrument this time is a rolling, rippling, electric tinkling peal. It is ethereal, faintly forlorn. It penetrates the deep stillness called into being by the silent children; it floats to them easily through the air.

Paul McAvinney, the inventor of this instrument, says the video harp uses light to sense the gestures of the hands and its own internal computer to interpret them. The instrument makes no sounds of its own. It relies on the synthesizer to re-create virtually all the musical sounds made on traditional instruments by hand gestures: bowing, strumming, keyboarding, percussion. It is unique because of its use of light to interpret those gestures, and for its programmable computer inside. It can also interpret gestures that aren't used on any known instrument and realize them as sound. That is, it can make new sound.

All this has become vital to Patton the composer. It helps him to form his work, reform and redesign it, try it out with the sound of this instrument or that. It allows him to hear his melodies and musical phrasing in mid-creation, not just imagine them. The video harp also seems to reflect something of Patton's own attitudes toward his vocation.

"I was always more interested in making up my own music than learning somebody else's," he says, without a trace of arrogance.

Since there is no music written for the video harp, or very little, Patton doesn't have to learn any. His slate is clear, so to speak.

This is one reason McAvinney has built no more than eight video harps: there is no demand for them. It is something he understands and is not bitter about. He's an inventor and has other things to build.

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