Instruments Of Chan

May 31, 1998|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

It's 10 a.m. when the suits arrive. Geoffrey Wright, head o Peabody Conservatory's computer-music department, is on his second large coffee and third hurried meeting.

Word has gotten around that Peabody is doing research with something called a "virtual orchestra," so three businessmen have driven up from northern Virginia. They'd like to see for themselves.

Wright waves his visitors down a hall, past students hurrying to violin lessons, theory classes or piano practice rooms, and into a small studio filled with computers. The men arrange themselves in a half-circle, and the demonstration begins.

With a flourish, Peabody graduate Forrest Tobey lifts his hands in the classic pose of a conductor calling his orchestra to order.

But there are no musical instruments to be seen.

With silver wands, one held in each hand, Tobey beckons -- and music spills from the air. First comes the glissando of a harp, then the trill of a flute, then the clash of cymbals.

Tobey's batons are part of a device called a Buchla Lightning. As they move, they direct a beam of infrared light to a computerized receiver. The computer senses the batons' positions and velocity as they move through the air and translates Tobey's conducting gestures into instructions for a synthesizer, which produces music.

The suits exchange glances: This is cool. They are organizing an international technology convention. Maybe Tobey could perform at it? But as they talk excitedly, Wright gives a nearly imperceptible shake of his head, "No."

There is too much to do.

For the first time in his career, the conservatory professor is not interested in performances. He is not looking for applause for his students, or the approval of an awe-struck audience. Instead, for Wright and his colleagues, the last few weeks have been a whirlwind of patent applications and licensing agreements. "I can't afford the time to just do demonstrations," he says. "We're finally at the point where things are moving forward, and there is no time to waste."

The members of Peabody's computer-music department are musicians who want to use technology to enhance their art. Some, like Tobey, are conductors or performers who view computers as musical instruments. Others see computers as tools to be used to compose new works or create new sounds.

Over the years, in their quest to create great art, some of Peabody's researchers have developed technology that may have applications outside the musical world.

The conservatory, formally known as the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, recently began marketing a product developed by its computer-music department. Called SoundView, the highly sophisticated software can analyze and manipulate sound and -- if marketed and sold successfully -- could become a new source of funding for the institution.

It also means that Hopkins for the first time is acknowledging that the conservatory, like the medical or engineering schools, is a source of potentially lucrative innovation. And it means that musicians now have the dual opportunities that long have been available to professors in scientific fields: to conduct research and to transform it into marketable, profitable products.

"Musicians historically have lived on patronage. Scientists have looked to research grants," says Wright. "We are trying to explore the non-traditional ways of finding funding."

For 140 years, Peabody has been known as a place for chamber music concerts, violin recitals and symphonic performances, and its emphasis always has been on providing classical training for young musicians.

But the school also has pushed the boundaries of musical study: In 1968, Peabody became one of the first conservatories in the country to offer courses in electronic music. And in 1982, Wright founded the school's computer-music studio.

He has worked to attract students from all over the world who, like Tobey, are both classically trained and fluent in technology. "You could say I am looking to attract the 'Renaissance musician.' The question is, 'Who are the geniuses of the next musical generation? Who are the Beethovens, the Mozarts? The ones who are way out front?' We don't know.

"I'm hoping that some of our students are able to go out there and really set the standard for whatever is the next generation of music."

Still, the Peabody computer-music department is very small -- only about six graduate students enter it each year (some 40 enter Peabody's piano program, the institution's largest). And computer-music departments at other, larger academic centers such as Stanford, MIT or the University of California San Diego produce streams of graduates and cutting-edge research.

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