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Real-time Beethoven

Now, you can compose and perform in the same few milliseconds. And the variations you can make on a single theme are infinite.

Imagine a concert hall and a stage, with a symphony orchestra that has performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, with the addition of electric instruments and loudspeakers.

Imagine, if you will, the composer himself (whom we’ll pretend for the occasion is not deaf), who strolls around between the orchestra members on the stage, while they start on the fourth movement.

Wielding his own instrument, a hybrid?

between a laptop and a sound generator, the composer soaks up the different tones, processes them, and sends them back in ever-changing variations.

“Ode to Joy” is sampled (digitized), producing new and unexpected phrasing - but at the same time, the basic theme is instantly recognizable. The symphony is completely altered, in ever-changing varieties, because the composer is a part of the performance of his composition.

Infinite variations

Unfortunately for old Ludwig himself, this musical vision comes 200 years too late. But we can still play with Beethoven’s works. And today's composers have been given a completely new instrument: a computer program for the processing of sound, where the actual act of composing is an integral part of the instrument itself. And where the composition takes place simultaneously with a performance, in real time - live, as it is called in music-speak.

This new invention is a tool for both improvisation and variation, a computer program and a musical instrument all rolled up into one. Call it a computer instrument. Its developer is just 36 years old; his name is Øyvind Brandtsegg, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

Brandtsegg is a composer, a musician and computer programmer. The instrument is his PhD research.

We’re talking about a new type of sound generator, a particle synthesizer. It takes a stanza – a guitar riff, a verse line, a drum solo, or any recorded sound – and splits the sound into a number of very short sound particles that can last for between 1 and 10 milliseconds.

These fragments may be infinitely reshuffled, making it possible to vary the music with no change in the fundamental theme.

“It’s easy to change a bit of music into something that can’t be recognized. It’s the opposite that is the challenge: to create variations in which the musical theme remains clear,” says Brandtsegg.

New and better energy

Brandtsegg has created a new link between composition and improvisation with his new instrument. In a way, he’s rediscovered the energy of a piece in a new and much better form. What he’s doing is something that jazz musicians have always done – they have a composition as the foundation, and then they go up on the podium and play variations on the basic theme.

But there are limits to what even Louis Armstrong can coax out of a trumpet. “This instrument allows me to expand the musical palette with new tonal variations and timbres. It is also the first time that the actual composition process can be controlled in real time”, Brandtsegg says.

Work that previously required paper, pencil (and an eraser!) and many hours, can be done in the blink of an eye, with an instrument on stage, says the composer. This allows for new ways of thinking about music composition.

A little help from my friends

Brandtsegg himself is a graduate of the jazz programme at the NTNU Department of Music.

“Here I learned to improvise in the traditional way, but I wanted more. I understood that in order to achieve my goal, I had to learn about computer programming, and understand electronics”, he says.

Along the way, he has developed ImproSculpt, software that make it possible to sample surroundings during a presentation, and to control the process using a body sensor. He also plays the Marimba Lumina, a percussion instrument that has been electronically modified so that the player can alter the sound by the way he or she strikes the instrument.

In his efforts to develop his new computerized instrument, Brandtsegg has had to seek help elsewhere at the university. Scientists at the Department of Computer and Information Science have assisted him with its software architecture, and the acoustics group at the Department of Electronics and Telecommunications has helped with the development of particle synthesizer.

By Tore Oksholen/Gemini

Øyvind Brandtsegg | alfa
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