IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Music composition, computers and collaboration coalesce at AMP
When he decided to study music composition, Michael Theodore knew his future held orchestral pieces and string quartets. He never expected robots and computers to enter the picture.
Now an associate professor in the College of Music, Theodore arrived at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1998. Since then, he’s spent much of his time exploring the intricacies of digital sound, ascribing musical styles to computers and working with patterns and symbols of music notation. “In the digital world, it’s very easy to take one stream of information and influence another stream from another place,” Theodore said. “From there, I realized once you’re working with a signal, the music could control some kind of video, audio or moving images—or vice versa.”
This fall, he accepted a position within ATLAS as the director of the Center for Arts Media and Performance (AMP). In addition to teaching composition and music technology and creating interdisciplinary performances, Theodore now works to develop a network that fosters artistic collaborations among different departments and programs across campus. Like a painter utilizing different colors from a palette, AMP’s multimedia endeavors have drawn from all sorts of specialties: computer science and engineering to fine arts and dance. “CU is an amazing place with people and artists who have so much knowledge that they’re willing to share,” Theodore said. “Why not try to bring them together?”
Theodore has created and organized many interdisciplinary performances. On Nov. 6, he performed with pianist Hsing-ay Hsu, a CU instructor and artistic director of the Pendulum concert series. The collaborative piece, “Reverie in the Finale Act,” transformed the piano music through a computer, which then interacted with video footage of fireworks projected on three screens. Theodore described the surreal theme as “a meditation on the nature of fireworks, explosions, existence and nonexistence.” Theodore also frequently collaborates with Michelle Ellsworth, an assistant professor in CU’s Theatre and Dance department.
“If you look at the major cities like New York and L.A., the kind of programming that those venues do is clearly going in this direction,” he said. “This is partially because of the digital age, but also because the idea of merging the arts is coming into focus again.”
Theodore currently leads a research group that uses sound to control physical objects. The team, which includes undergraduate and graduate students, is working to construct small robots that can hit drums and play other types of instruments. The group plans to present its work next semester. “The idea is not to replace people, because it’s designed to received input from actual people,” Theodore said. “But at the same time, we can take advantage of what mechanical devices and computers can offer. I call it ‘power tools for human expression.’”
AMP incorporates a production studio and a collection of physical spaces, including the Black Box Theater, for students and faculty to collaborate and perform. For the program’s director, the center serves as a laboratory. ”There is so much unexplored territory, so many opportunities for discovery,” he said. “I really hope we can grow the kinds of programming we do here.”
In order to accomplish this, Theodore is cultivating a community that makes it easier for students to connect, collaborate, and access resources. The network aims to serve a broad set of interests and disciplines, as more people become hungry for this type of artistic expression, Theodore said. “I think CU has the potential to be a national leader in this field, considering the university’s strong arts programs and strong science programs,” he said. “The main thing we need to do is continue connecting the dots. We’re already producing very exciting results, and I am extremely optimistic.”
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