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At Yale Lab, Experimentation and Engineering Intersect With Musical Composition

Ryan Caron King
Yale student Bobby Berry talks to Yale instructor Thibault Bertrand as he works on his musical instrument project, a rotating glass harp.
"Building and engineering is actually a form of composing."
Dominic Coles

If you could hop into a time machine and transport yourself forward to a 23rd-century concert hall, what music would you hear -- and what would the instruments look like? From a classroom at Yale University, WNPR explored one possible future musical timeline.

Our journey to the future begins with something rooted very firmly in today: YouTube.

"Someone mentioned that it was possible to sing multiple notes, then I looked it up online and was hooked ever since," said Alexander Dubovoy, a senior at Yale studying history.

He's part of a class -- bringing students from STEM and the humanities together -- called Musical Acoustics and Instrument Design.

Dubovoy’s "YouTube fascination" was throat singing, a technique where a performer uses the resonances of the mouth and throat essentially to sing multiple pitches at once. It’s hard to do -- especially, Dubovoy said, without a teacher.

So in a lab here at Yale, he’s engineered it. Students learn how instruments create sound, and use hand tools and laser cutters ultimately to design and make their own.

Dubovoy’s instrument does something he calls hand singing. It’s essentially an accelerometer -- the thing inside your cell phone that senses directional changes -- that he re-coded to play and manipulate samples of throat singers on his computer.

As he held it up, he moved his hand -- and it sang.

Dubovoy’s music comes through computer speakers, but surrounding him are students working on an orchestra of instruments seemingly pulled from the imaginations of Isaac Asimov or Dr. Seuss.

Nearby was a deep “drone drum” capped at the top with a banjo. Its neck was blanketed on both sides with strings, which sophomore Jack Lawrence pounded and plucked. Nearby another student, Bobby Berry, fussed over an array of wine glasses he rigged onto turntables -- creating a kind of automated glass harp. 

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Yale student Bobby Berry listens to the sounds of his glass harp.

Tucked away in a corner was a large array of PVC tubes. Senior Alessandra Roubini said they’re designed to control and manipulate a sound often avoided by musicians: feedback. 

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Konrad Kaczmarek, a Yale music instructor.

KonradKaczmarek, one of the instructors, said from a creative side, the class is very interesting to teach.

Because, he said, for college-level music classes, "the focus is often on harmony -- theory. What are the notes you’re playing?" he said. "Whereas with this, you get to take a broader step back -- and say, you know, I don’t even care what pitch it’s going to generate -- I’m just interested in the sound. Is it going to be noisy? Is it a harmonic type of sound?"

Senior Dominic Coles said designing his own instrument with that approach in mind -- expanded his view of musical composition.

"I used to think that what composing was -- was you working in your room with a piano or an instrument, with pencil and paper - writing out notes," Coles said. "But I think … building and engineering is actually a form of composing."

For his project, Coles built a resonating box, but instead of attaching strings to it, he affixed three motors, running them at different rates to produce different pitches.

To his right was freshman Emil Ernström, who manipulated a wooden wheel he covered in rosin against three strings. The pair played a duet.

Ernström said their piece is less about notes, and more about improvised sound --- the color shift from darker, lower notes -- to higher, brighter ones. 

Then there’s another instrument, whose creator, junior Eli Brown, said sounds somewhere between a steel drum and a kora. It also would fit perfectly on the cover of a 1950s pulp science fiction magazine.

The gizmo looks like a ray gun. Twenty-four strings run through a stainless steel metal hemisphere and are connected in the middle to a PVC pipe. As Brown bowed and plucked it, the sound was other-worldly.

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Yale student David Torres (middle) stands next to his invention -- a filter that uses tubes to accentuate the frequencies produced by a keyboard synth.

Like most students in the class, Brown said getting the instrument up and running was a challenge. But he was having fun messing with the tunings and improvising on it. He said he normally plays trumpet and jazz. While this instrument is nothing like that, its twangy vibrations could provide a glimpse into the future of 23rd-century -- let's call it -- "space jazz."

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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