The composer and the computer

SUNDAY SNAPSHOTS

Music: Lorraine Whittlesey...

February 23, 1997|By M. Dion Thompson

The composer and the computer; Music: Lorraine Whittlesey 0) writes for new instruments, ancient ones and everything in between.

With a flick of the wrist, Lorraine L. Whittlesey sends a blank music score sheet sliding across the floor of her Roland Park home.

"Ta-dah!" she says. "I don't need it."

She turns to her computer and plays a pop-style riff she knows would not have impressed her childhood piano teacher. An instant later, the score appears on the screen. In another instant, the music is played back through the computer. Ta-dah!

"The computer is a great tool, but it won't teach you how to become a composer," says Whittlesey, a lifelong musician, composer and lyricist. "It just saves so much time."

Whittlesey, 49, lives in the world of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), synthesizers, sound boards and computer technology. Here, she captures sound and creates music. On Saturday, two of her pieces will be performed at the "New Music From an Ancient Culture" concert, one of the events the Walters Art Gallery is sponsoring for its "Treasures From Ancient China" exhibit.

(The concert is open to gallery members only; information is available by calling [410] 547-9000, Ext. 283.)

Whittlesey is writing for the erhu, an ancient, two-string instrument played with a bow, and for the p'i-p'a, a four-stringed instrument somewhat similar to the European lute. She says she did plenty of research before putting down a note. She studied the culture of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.), its rituals, its music. Only then could she try to write.

"I don't believe that it's so much a leap as an understanding, and I think that applies for any instrument," she says. "You think about the instrument. You think about the situation, and you just write."

The piece for the erhu, titled "Solution," will be accompanied by a synthesizer. It is a moody, flowing piece. "Persistence," the piece for the p'i-p'a, will be performed by a soloist on the instrument. It strikes the ear with a decidedly more Eastern sound. Whittlesey says this is because of the note intervals employed in the piece and because of the percussive nature of the p'i-p'a. Both pieces are in G minor. The titles come from the "I Ching," a copy of which she keeps by her computer.

"The music came first," she says. "After I wrote the music, I wondered what word would go well with the music."

Composition has been Whittlesey's livelihood for years. Her commissioned work has been performed at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and at Carnegie Hall. She also has composed for Parents Anonymous of Maryland and for the christening of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.

Whittlesey, who grew up in New York City, was a member of the "Peanut Gallery" on the old "Howdy Doody" show. The gallery came cheap. She remembers being paid with bags of Mars bars.

She studied classical piano and entered the rigorous world of competitions but opted out, preferring composing and more popular fare.

One of her bands, the Lines, became a hit on the pop scene in New York and Europe. It had a hit single in 1980 with "Let's Be Modern" and shared bills with Duran Duran and the Ramones.

"It was quite heady," she says. "We were literally an overnight success."

That world is a lifetime removed from the quiet of her third-floor composition room in one of an original Roland Park house she shares with her husband and one of her three children. What continues is the music. The works-in-progress stored in her computer include a concerto for harpsichord. She also is working up a series of onomatopoeic tunes, such as "A Murmuration of Starlings" and "A Trip of Goats."

"What ends up very often is that I'll listen to the sounds, the sounds," she says.

Those sounds helped her cross the cultural divide and bring a bit of ancient China to Baltimore.

"Being able to write this music for the ancient culture and for these instruments is " She pauses. "It's staggering. That's the word I'm groping for -- staggering."

The erstwhile Catonsville schoolgirl remembers a vision of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's main branch as the Center of Book Universe. She recalls walking into the grand old building with the lofty ceiling and feeling that "I was coming to the mecca of libraries, the repository of all the books I could possibly need to do research."

Virginia Adams grew up, left town and returned, but never lost her affection for the library.

Now she sits at the head of the Pratt Library board of directors at a moment of transition for herself and the 111-year-old institution.

On the library board since 1992, Adams was named chairwoman of the 16-member board in October, the first woman ever to hold the post. Her election came months after the Pratt announced a three-year plan for improved services to young people and neighborhoods, and as plans are afoot for a $45 million renovation of the main branch.

Moving forward

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