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.
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.
- 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
- Well thanks so much for having me.
- It was great having you.
- Yeah thanks.