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Dance goes digital in 'House Music Project'

Thomas DeFrantz, associate professor of music, will perform his piece, "House Music Project," this weekend in Kresge Little Theater.
Thomas DeFrantz, associate professor of music, will perform his piece, "House Music Project," this weekend in Kresge Little Theater.
Photo courtesy / Slippage

"House Music Project," an interactive, improvisational performance developed by Associate Professor Thomas DeFrantz and opening this weekend at MIT, combines digital technology and African-American dance to explore what DeFrantz calls "the technological shifts that pushed black music into the electronic age."

"Disco, the black music of economic uplift, racial assimilation and 'good times,' gave way to two main strands of electronic music: house and hip-hop," explained DeFrantz, whose research centers on African-American performance. "House" music, which mixed prerecorded pieces together and added the voices of singers, the DJ, and often live organ, opened up new possibilities for black music, he said, but has been passed over in many histories of popular music in the United States.

Unlike hip-hop, which DeFrantz said "voiced the trials of living young and oppressed through break dancing, graffiti, emceeing and DJ-ing," house music "focused on the aesthetics of sonic pleasure through the craft of the DJ."

DeFrantz will be joined by MIT student dancers, including some from Imobilare, MIT's break dancing group.

DeFrantz will wear a "custom-constructed sensor-driven wireless body-pack" that allows him to manipulate audio and video feeds drawn from a music archive. "It takes a while for the audience to understand that the dancer controls the sound and video, but when that realization happens, it's great fun," he said.

For the technological elements of the project, DeFrantz tapped the talents of two former students who studied under him during their undergraduate years at MIT. Eto Otitigbe (S.B. 1999) and James Tolbert (S.B. 2005) were enlisted to work on the project in its early stages and provided input that DeFrantz called "critical to shaping the larger interests of the work."

Otitigbe, now known professionally as Eto Oro, designed a mixed media archive of house music documentation through images, text streams, recorded sounds and prepared video.

Tolbert created a computer engine that generates images and sounds based on the movements of the dancers as they perform within an abstract "house" on stage.

DeFrantz developed the project during Independent Activities Period, when he spent a month at the University of Texas in Dallas working with students and local community members to bring his idea to life.

While emergent technologies are integral to DeFrantz's pieces, he said there are still many challenges associated with using them in performance. "Often technology is its own end, providing spectacle without integral connection to human interaction. My goal in these works is to yoke the technology to narrative storytelling in some way," he said.

"House Music Project" will be performed March 17 and 18 at 8 p.m. and March 19 at 2 p.m. in Kresge Little Theater. Tickets are $10, $6 for students.

A discussion of "House Music Project" and a free technology demo will be held March 17, at 2 p.m. in Kresge Little Theater.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 15, 2006 (download PDF).

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