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ArtTalk: Christine Southworth, composer

Lynn Heinemann of the Office of the Arts asked composer Christine Southworth why she chose to cast the 40-foot de Graaff generator in "Zap!"

Q. Why a Van de Graaff generator?

A. The Van de Graaff generator is spectacular. It makes huge sparks of lightning, big booming sounds; or it can make a beautiful glowing corona with a sweet humming buzz. I came up with this idea with Andy Cavatorta, who works at the museum, and it just made sense. For this piece, I've treated the Van de Graaff generator as a combination percussive instrument and light show.

Q. How did you get the idea for this project?

A. About two years ago I decided that I needed to make robots to play my music, because it was too hard for people to play. This was more of an issue with my notation than anything else, but I thought it would be amazing to be able to play electronic music, as a midi sequence, on real instruments. My friend Leila Hasan builds robots, so soon after that we started applying for grants to make this happen, and Ensemble Robot was born. With generous support from the LEF Foundation, we've spent the past year developing this project.

We went to the museum about a year ago with the idea of putting the robots in the museum as entertainment, perhaps in the cafeteria or lobby. While we were exploring possibilities with that, Andy Cavatorta mentioned the Van de Graaff generator and this project just exploded into being.

Q. Does "Zap!" fall into an identifiable musical category?

A. My music could be called "post-minimalist acoustic electronica," amplified. I've been influenced by classical music--Vivaldi, Bach--and by modern music--Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Michael Gordon, Louis Andriessen, Arnold Dreyblatt, Meredith Monk, and of course by my teacher, Evan Ziporyn. I've also been influenced by electronica, jazz, hip-hop and rock and roll, specifically Kraftwerk, the Beatles, and Tribe Called Quest. And video game music. And gamelan! I would say my music is pretty; it rocks, grooves, and follows no rules really. My teacher at Brown, Shep Shapiro, said "This music doesn't break the rules; it rather renders the rules obsolete." I like that.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 2, 2005 (download PDF).

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