A Lesson in Composition

Students get a crash course in designing and building musical instruments.

Professor Dan Crozier directs Mary-Ellen Garner ’15 and Rebecca Hamilton ’15 as they practice their original composition on their self-designed and constructed experimental musical instruments. (Photo by Scott Cook) Professor Dan Crozier directs Mary-Ellen Garner ’15 and Rebecca Hamilton ’15 as they practice their original composition on their self-designed and constructed experimental musical instruments. (Photo by Scott Cook)

The first sound you hear is a sort of cross between a cat’s screech and nails on a chalkboard—a weird, Halloween-esque shriek of a violin bow over metal. Across the room, a young woman is humming into a microphone, trying to find the exact note that will vibrate a metal string that will intonate in just the right way; it’s kind of like a voice-controlled piano, a sort of Rube Goldberg contraption shaped like a half-sphere. Off to the side there’s an instrument that looks like an amalgamation of a trombone and a woodwind, a rectangular bloodwood and walnut concoction whose notes change by sliding the bottom part up and down while blowing. Around the way, tucked in a back corner, there’s a metallic sphere with metal rods protruding from it that perhaps best resembles a medieval torture device.

This is Soundscapes. In a week, the eight students who have spent the semester in the sculpture studio will perform, together, music the students have written, on instruments that they conceived, designed, and built. Only one of them, by the way, is a music major. Technically, this is an interdisciplinary honors class incorporating physics and art. And, perhaps counterintuitively, all but one of the students are female.

Thomas Moore is a professor of physics, and has an affinity for music. In fact, he’s the chair of the committee of musical acoustics an organization called the American Acoustical Society, and specializes in the physics of musical instruments—why it is, for instance, pressing down on a piano key elicits a certain tone, which he would be happy to explain to you in long soliloquy about transverse motion and longitudinal motion and nonlinear coupling.

“If it wasn’t for the money aspects,” he says, “half the physicists in the world would be in this field.” Sadly, the funders of physics-related research tend to want more concrete results for their money—defense-related items, usually.

Back in 2008 and 2009, Moore paired with music professor Dan Crozier to teach a class called Seeing Music, Hearing Art, in which students had to take a piece of music and turn it into a work of art. It went well, but was a one-off course. A few years later, Moore was mountain biking with Joshua Almond, an assistant professor of art. The conversation, Moore says, turned to creating a course like Soundscapes, something where they would help students design and build their own original instruments, which would also have to be artistic in nature. But to pull that off, they decided, they would need to enlist Crozier. Somebody, after all, would have to teach the students about music.

It would be a yearlong class. In the fall, the students would have to sketch their instruments and learn the basics of composition. “Most of them didn’t know the notes,” Crozier says.

“None had any construction experience either,” Almond adds. “It’s like we built a soapbox derby, put her on the top of Mount St. Helens, and let her rip.”

The class started with 16 students, only one of whom was a physics major. Half, including the physics major, have since dropped out. “This is way beyond challenging,” Moore says. “It’s more than a little scary.”

Mutya Cruz ’15 adjusts the motor mechanism that powers her instrument, a keyboard-played pipe organ and string instrument that consists of 36 individually activated stringed pipes. (Photo by Scott Cook) Mutya Cruz ’15 adjusts the motor mechanism that powers her instrument, a keyboard-played pipe organ and string instrument that consists of 36 individually activated stringed pipes. (Photo by Scott Cook)

“I didn’t have any idea what instrument to build,” Mutya Cruz ’15 says. Unlike most students in the class, Cruz has at least a background in music—she plays the violin, though she’s a chemistry major. She signed up last year, when the three professors pitched the course to her first-year honors class. Soundscapes seemed like an opportunity to combine her love of music with her love of science and building things.

Early last fall, even as they were learning the basics of music theory and composition, Cruz and the other students each turned in about 20 quick sketches of their proposed musical instruments—though, Cruz says, they didn’t know one of these 30-second drawings would end up as the basis for their project. The professors sorted through them, separating the ones that were, well, feasible from those that weren’t. From there, the pool of possibilities was gradually winnowed until students had their design.

By the end of last semester, the students had to complete a proof of concept. And they did. And then the hard part began.

On Sunday, April 28, they will play music they wrote on instruments they designed in a concert in Tiedtke Concert Hall. Each student, in fact, has to write two ensemble pieces to play with other students, which seems particularly mind-boggling when you consider that, in Almond’s words, “we were kind of guesstimating their pitch collection.”

“This is my field,” Moore says, “but this is way beyond what we can accurately calculate.”

As the students tested out their instruments on a Wednesday afternoon, you got the sense of how much guesswork went into all this—figuring out which notes and tones and harmonics the combinations of metal and wood would elicit, determining what notes each instrument could play, not to mention what an ensemble of this things would sound like.

At the very least, this concert will be unique. Perhaps not symphonically beautiful, but definitely unique.

“I’m probably never going to do it again,” Moore says. “I can’t take the stress!”

He’s half kidding—about the stress, not about this being a one-time course. The real problem is money. They used grant money from the Associated Colleges of the South, as well as leftover funds from an anonymous grant that funded Seeing Music, Hearing Art, to pay for the materials and construction that went into these instruments.

Which means that, in all likelihood, the concert on April 28 will quite literally be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For the students, however, the course has offered something more than just the sum of its parts—something more than just the chance to invent an instrument and play it in front of people. It offered something of a window into that fundamental element of academic process: trial and error.

Take Cruz’s instrument, a tall, vertical contraption of motorized bows, pipes, wooden keyboards, and strings, which looks nothing like her sketch from the beginning of last semester. “In scholarship,” she says, “you will try something, and it won’t work. That was a very important lesson for all of us. We got into the process of rethinking things.”