AHA! A House for Arts

S7 E8 | CLIP

AHA! 708 | The Future of Music with Rob Hamilton

Rob Hamilton is an Associate Professor of Music and Media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His expertise lies in the intersection of technology, sound, and music. What does the future of music look like? Lara Ayad finds out.

AIRED: September 01, 2021 | 0:09:05

I grew up as a musician playing classical piano,

and jazz saxophone, rock guitar,

I played in bands my whole life.

And as a student, I studied...I did study music,

but I really got interested in studying music

and technology from an early age.

And looking at how in the, you know, early '90s,

how computer systems could be used

to manipulate sound and music.

And so, when I did get to study music and technology

in college, I got to play on these incredible systems.

These computer systems that fill rooms,

the Synclavier is a great example at Dartmouth College.

What that gave me was the bug.

And I got really excited about,

"Wow, isn't this incredible, what we can do

with these computer systems" that I had learned about,

but didn't really see an avenue forward for me

in what I was interested in.

- What's the advantage of looking at music

and music making in particular, from a tech standpoint,

like what kind of advantage does that give us?

- Well sound is such an interesting thing.

It's, you know, a physical phenomenon

that exists all around us.

And as musicians, we learn how to take these

boxes of wood and string and steel,

and control sound in intricate ways

that take thousands of hours of practice.

Technology allows us to then take that learned behavior,

those skills, and manipulate them further in ways that,

as musicians, we could only dream of in the past.

So technology lets me take music that I may create

or someone else may create

and transform it into something entirely new.

- Oh, that's really cool.

I mean, I'm kind of thinking about the music you've created

and I've listened to some of it

and I've seen some of your score sheets too,

and they're just absolutely incredible things to look at,

but even thinking about your music, it's interesting.

'Cause I think when a lot of people think of music,

they think of like, maybe a four minute song

with a melody and a chorus, maybe a bridge.

When I've listened to the music

you've created with trained musicians,

for my ears, at least,

it sounds quite abstract. (tech beeping)

Am I correct in thinking

that these pieces don't have a beginning, middle, or end,

or is there a certain structure to the works you create?

- Musical structure is a really interesting thing.

And we as a society, and as many societies around the world

have gotten used to certain structures,

whether it's the three minute blast of pop punk

for perfection, or a Sonata form or, you know,

a large orchestral work, and that's by no means the only way

that music has ever been or is structured.

Especially if we look at cultures all around the world

where music is,

is essentially treated as sound with organization.

"Organized sound" is a phrase that was popularized

by composer, Edgard Varèse.

When we're talking about the kind of music

that I enjoy creating with technology,

it does have structure and I do approach it as a composer

where I'm actually planning an arc,

but that arc might not be three minutes.

It might not be six minutes,

it might be 12 or 40.

And along that way, I create these divisions

and subdivisions of sound and pattern

in ways that, to me, reflect some kind of meaning.

- You brought up time.

And I think this is so interesting

'cause with COVID and everything and everyone now,

like even people who were traditionally

not using tech to work, are now using tech.

They're communicating with people

literally on the other side of the world.

And I know that time is important for you

because if I understand correctly,

you're trying to help musicians be able to say,

"Create some type of virtual orchestra,

or virtual band piece together

with people across the world and there's no time lag".

Am I correct about that?

- Absolutely, and so one thing

that I think all of us have understood

and learned to understand in the last two years

is that communication with people around the world

is possible, and yet that distance is...we can hear it.

We hear it in our communications.

Latency or time is super important in music, right?

If we're playing music together and we're not in sync...

- Right. - It's hard for us

to hear one another. - [Lara] Right.

- Whether we're playing rhythmic music

or something more abstract

- Even by a fraction of a second.

- [Rob] Absolutely. - It can,

it can ruin the whole entire piece.

- So the idea of us being able to hear one another in time

is super important, and there's been wonderful research

that's gone on over the last 20 years...30 years,

about how music and sound

can be communicated across networks.

Foundational work at Stanford by my advisor, Chris Chafe,

at the lab at which I did my studies,

in understanding how these latencies affect

the way we play music together,

but also building technologies

that allow us to minimize that latency,

to cut down the amount of time that it takes for my signal

to go around the world and get to you

and then for your signal to come back to me.

- Right, and that means that for instance, if I wanted to,

if I wanted to play guitar

and then sync that up with someone playing drums in Japan,

we can actually now do that properly

because there isn't that fraction of a second it's off.

It's completely synchronous in the truest sense.

- Well the challenge is

that there will always be some kind of

fraction of a second - [Lara] Hm.

because that information is traveling

at the speed of light - [Lara] Got it.

- Now at its best, it's the speed of light.

And in reality, it has to pass through wires and boxes

and cables all around the world.

So there are so many different strategies

that we look at as researchers, trying to create systems

that allow us to do exactly what you said.

When I'm working with VR instruments,

it's a whole 'nother related set of challenges

because these systems are modeled after video game systems.

- Right, so these are virtual instruments.

It's like they're computer created, animated instruments,

but they function, like they actually work.

Like if you have...

I think I've seen videos of like,

people will have a device on their hand

and then they'll strum

and it actually strums the virtual instrument.

- Absolutely, and so in this case,

I've been building a whole series of instruments

we call CORETET, C-O-R-E-T-E-T,

where the virtual instruments are computer constructs

floating in space that we see

through these virtual reality goggles.

Something like...

- Oh that's so great. - Like an Oculus Rift.

This is a pair of stereoscopic lenses

that create, kind of the illusion in our brains,

that we are seeing something with depth

and in something in there and the concept of space.

And so in that sense, it allows us to build objects

in virtual space that we can reach out

and move and grab and reach around.

And for the recent work I've been doing,

or recent things I've been playing with,

is about how to create stringed instruments.

Cellos, and violins, and bases

in which we can reach into that virtual space and play them.

And that information not only comes out as sound,

but it's also sent out to the people with whom we're playing

ideally around the world.

- Virtual reality is also starting to play a really big role

on the larger sense, in larger realms

of media and entertainment.

So for instance, I mean, Ariana Grande, for instance,

just had a big live concert via Fortnite,

and that's not the first time that the game,

online game Fortnite's had virtual concerts.

So I'm curious to know, Rob, what is the future of music

and maybe music with virtual reality,

like moving, say 10 years from now.

- Such a great question.

The way I like to think about it is,

there are going to be a lot of futures.

One of them, which is directly related

to what you're talking about

and the idea of maybe using gaming platforms

and interactive media, as a ways to present musical concerts

is that a whole generation is growing up right now

who are more attuned towards media experiences

with which they can interact.

They are no longer passive consumers sitting on the couch,

watching a television, they are at a minimum,

chatting on a feed while watching a video

while on Discord while playing a game.

So the idea of interacting with their media, with our media,

has become extremely popular over the last decade.

Moving forward into the future, I can only see that,

you know, once the cat's out of the bag,

we're not going back, right?

We're not going to

go back to passive forms of entertainment,

to the same extent, when we can interact with the world.

When we can watch concerts

while walking around a fantastical space

and seeing a 400-foot avatar of our

favorite performer. - Right.

- Ariana Grande, at 400-feet tall.

(Lara laughs) - Exactly.

- And she's like four feet tall.

(Lara laughs) - It's such an interesting

and fascinating way to engage content.

And that's what's, I think, is such a wonderful way that

technology is changing the landscape.

When we look at music and entertainment and you know,

all these things that we as avid consumers

of music and sound and video really, really want.

- That's amazing, well Rob, thank you so much

for being on A House for Arts

It was so great learning about this and seeing that

virtual reality...

(Lara laughs)


- Well thanks so much for having me.

- It was great having you.

- Yeah thanks.


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