When you think composer, do you think dead, white, male, with scary hair? Well, think again. Colby has fostered a number of composers who are neither dead, nor exclusively white or male. The use the meduim of music in a variety of ways to express their artistic ideas, and they want you to listen.

By Rebecca Green | Photos by Fred Field

#composelife#right#40%#Contrary to the notion that technology makes things easier and faster, it takes much longer to compose computer music on today's state-of-the-art equipment. "The range of possibilities is so much greater. You really have to think about process,— Hallstrom said, sinking into his final word as if it were a comfy armchair. Describing himself as a sculptor of sound, he thinks of music largely in terms of structure, even though it unfolds over time.

Hallstrom is concerned with the dramatic curve of a piece—how musical gestures or ideas are linked together to form a musical shape. He likens this musical structure to the way that sentences, paragraphs, and whole arguments are linked to form a single large event or story—an essay in music.

Allison Dunn '07 is an English and classical civilization major who compares her work in Hallstrom's Introduction to Computer Music course to creative writing but with everyday sounds rather than nouns and verbs. Her first recording assignment in Music 213 was to record three non-musical sounds in the studio—she chose a zipper, water droplets, and crumpling paper—and then to process them using an array of options in the program Metasynth. To be successful she needed to manipulate the noises into elements of repetition that are organized to create and develop a theme that is brought to some kind of conclusion.

There are no musical prerequisites to Music 213, and it attracts students from many different departments. "If you couldn't read music when you came into the class, you can't read it when you leave either,— Hallstrom said.

Rather than mastering the art of counterpoint or orchestration, students learn to use computer programs to analyze and manipulate sounds. For Adam Souza, Music 213 is a course in aesthetics, where music is treated not as a beat or tune but a process of organizing sound over time. "It's not that melodies are bad,— he said, "but [Hallstrom] wants us to take away our conventional ways of organizing music so we think about it on a meta level.—

Clearly the technology itself is seductive, and that's partly what drew Souza to the class. He had already made a few sound sculptures on his home studio, which he assembled from his parents' cast-off music equipment. Always looking for the avant-garde, Souza wanted to learn more about the technology as well as hear some new music. For him, computer music offers potential for complete creative control. "There's no performer in what we're doing,— he said. "No compromise.—

But Hallstrom is not ready to dispense with the performer just yet. "All my pieces use performers,— he said. Since coming to Colby, Hallstrom has worked closely with Mary Jo Carlsen, who has taught violin and viola at Colby since Hallstrom hired her in 1985.

Composer Arthur Levering '75 at work in his studio in Cambridge, Mass.
Photo by Fred Field
Recently, she performed Hallstrom's In Memoriam, a kind of duet for violin and computer. The piece is in memory of Toru Takemitsu, the brilliant Japanese composer who died in 1996, and its elegiac landscape is a tribute to the evocative colors of Takemitsu's music. The computer-generated sounds evoke an otherworldly place, but the poignant violin line is like a human protagonist guiding us through a voyage to the beyond. There always seems to be a human voice somewhere in Hallstrom's work.

Though Carlsen practiced and performed with the digital recording, this composition does not count as intermedia. "I wasn't involved in the computer part. I just had to push 'on',— she said.

Recently Thomas, an accomplished jazz musician, performed one of Hallstrom's pieces in which a computer was programmed to respond to certain pitches as Thomas played the clarinet. In this case, the computer sounds were not inert but actually responsive to a performer in live time.

Intermedia takes computer-artist interaction to another level, making it possible for performers to interact using computer software and hardware, like the MIDI Data Glove. The basic technology of MIDI (which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) allows movement to be connected to musical parameters like pitch, volume, timbre, and speed so that the movements of a dancer can actually participate in generating a musical sound or a visual image.

Intermedia not only introduces a techno-dazzle factor into art, it complicates the notion of the composer as the originator of a musical work. Because it is fundamentally interdisciplinary, intermedia requires artists to relinquish disciplinary ownership. And that, Hallstrom confesses, can be hard to do.

But who ever said life on the frontier was going to be easy?