April 01, 2013

When most people think of acoustic music, images of folk guitar players or string orchestras may come to mind. Seemingly everyone envisions a person playing an instrument. But technological advances in the WPI music department are helping give a whole new meaning to the phrase.

A recent composition by assistant professor of music Scott Barton gained recognition in an international field, when on March 8 Ablaze Records selected his piece “Rise of a City” as one of its composition competition winners. Barton’s use of computer-controlled mechanical instruments does not fit the traditional mold of past winners in this acoustic music showcase, but his piece should offer a unique contribution to the upcoming CD entitled Millennial Masters Volume 4, which features all of the competition finalists.

“This competition is reviewed by peers,” Barton says. “The work was standing on its own merits. For other professionals—accomplished composers and engineers who did this review—to choose my work among others, I feel great. This helps the music I’m making, and the technology I’m working with and my work at WPI. All of this is really positive.”

Barton’s piece features some of his guitar playing, alongside three computer-operated machines. He used PAM (Poly-tangent Automatic), a guitar-like string instrument capable of creating unique sounding melodies, in the work. Barton also utilized two percussive instruments, MADI (Multi-mallet Automatic Drumming Instrument), a 16-arm snare drum-like instrument, and CADI (Configurable Automatic Drumming Instrument), a configurable instrument with the ability to play a diverse array of percussive instruments.

“This was one of my first pieces using a human performer in conjunction with the robots,” Barton says of his winning song. “This explores the relationship between the human performer and the robotic performer. It’s about exploring those areas that are natural to the robotic musicians, and the kinds of gestures they perform best—additionally exploring the gestures that human performers perform best. There are unique areas and those that are shared.”

Barton founded Expressive Machines Musical Instruments (EMMI) with collaborators from the University of Virginia, where he earned his PhD. EMMI led to the creation of PAM, MADI, and CADI, and through this collaborative, and his work at WPI, Barton has a growing list of robotic instruments.

“At the end of my master’s program I began to see the potential of using computers to control robotic instruments,” Barton says. “A lot of electronic composers were making pieces within the computer, but ultimately they are using speakers. I saw the opportunity to get out of those restraints and work with real physical instruments, where you can understand causality and see how it works and how sound is produced.”

At WPI Barton specializes in music technology. He draws from a number of fields, including psychology and robotics engineering, and prides himself in his composing and audio production. Barton has a lab on campus, where nine students aid in the creation of robots by designing circuits, laser cutting and printing, and writing the software that controls them among other things.

By Matt Stewart