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February 24, 2012

Artist uses computer sculpture to create music

The strange sounds emanating from the belly of the Reg Tuesday afternoon were not, for once, the groans of overworked students, but instead the music of composer, sound artist, and sculptor Howard Sandroff. The founder and current director of the University of Chicago’s Computer Music Studio was giving a performance to show off his latest untitled “sound sculpture,” an ungainly and somewhat unsightly work of art consisting of two sheets of hammered low-carbon steel, skewered through with metal spikes.

The performance, as unusual as the featured sculpture, was held in conjunction with the opening of an exhibit, The Music of Howard Sandroff and the Computer Music Studio at the University of Chicago, also located in the Reg. The exhibit, one year in the making, displays historical computer (electronic) music paraphernalia, including a theremin and an analog synthesizer. Sandroff invited former student and University of Chicago graduate Ben Sutherland, now a music professor at Columbia College Chicago, to perform a concert to kick off the exhibit’s premier.

Described by Sandroff as an “improvised” work (there was no score), the concert consisted of Sutherland hitting, poking, and pounding the metal sculpture, which was connected to a series of amplifiers. The sounds and frequencies created were then digitally manipulated, in real-time, by Sandroff, using a laptop computer and a board of switches that looked like a sampling machine. Speakers located around the room transmitted the sounds; noises bounced from one side of the room to the other as Sandroff directed the flow of the music.

The music itself was decidedly unstructured; as is common with computer music, there was no discernable melody or meter. Instead, various motifs weaved throughout the haze of metallic sounds. A prominent early “theme,” created by stretching a contrabass bow around the circumference of the sculpture, was sampled by Sandroff and repeatedly echoed, squeaks and squeals becoming low groans as the sounds were layered to oblivion. Clearly practiced in dealing with bizarre instruments, Sutherland made use of an odd array of tools, including the bow, several percussion mallets, and wire brushes, as he navigated the bumpy, unwieldy surface of the metal. The timbres he created, with help from Sandroff’s computer, ranged from high-pitched screeches to gamelan-like tones, some unsettling, others lush.

At one point toward the middle of the piece, Sutherland eschewed his instruments and started plucking the tops of the spikes with his fingers. Despite the inherent strangeness of the scene and the alien qualities of the sounds produced, there was still an air of intimacy in the moment: The crowd of about 30–40 people could see the music as much as it could hear it. Sandroff succeeded with his sculptural and musical creation: The concert was an intriguing glimpse into the strange world of computer music.

The Music of Howard Sandroff and the Computer Music Studio at the Universityof Chicago is located on the third floor of the Regenstein Library and runs through June 29.

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