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MIT's Makan wins Rome Prize

Keeril Makan, assistant professor of music, has won the Rome Prize for 2008-2009.
Keeril Makan, assistant professor of music, has won the Rome Prize for 2008-2009.
Photo / Donna Coveney

MIT professor Keeril Makan, a musician and composer acclaimed for his technique of layering recorded and live sounds, has been awarded the prestigious Luciano Berio Rome Prize for musical composition by the American Academy in Rome for 2008-2009.

The prize, announced Thursday, April 10, in New York, carries a stipend of $24,000, and work and living accommodations for 11 months at the academy.

Makan, assistant professor of music, originally trained as a violinist. He describes his music as an outgrowth of the western classical tradition, using familiar instruments and other musical traditions in new ways.

Makan's music moves fluidly among disparate sounds, weaving them into instrumental combinations that range from small chamber ensembles to works for orchestra. Innovative and exploratory, it has required the composer to develop hieroglyph-like notations for musicians performing his work. In a saxophone
piece, "Voice within Voice," for example, a row of jagged markings that look like shark's teeth means "put your teeth on the reed and grind."

But notation is not where the process of composing starts for Makan, a 36-year-old native of New Jersey.

"I write by physically interacting with the instrument I'm composing for. If I'm writing for the oboe, I'll play it in as many ways as I can imagine," he says. "As I work, new musical possibilities develop. This is how I get the raw materials for a piece; I record myself, then I figure out how I'll work with the material."

Makan will devote the 11-month residency in Rome to working on three major pieces, he says.

One project will be to compose "Tracker," a five-part chamber opera in which technological instruments of the past, such as 19th-century contraptions for measuring pulse and motion, are linked thematically to current technologies and to the impact of technology on the imagination and emotional experience.

Sketches for "Tracker" are now taped in five columns to the wall of Makan's MIT office, a small room packed with books and musical gear. Photographs by 19th century scientist Etienne-Jules Marey top each column; poem-shaped segments of Jena Osman's libretto spill downward like adding machine paper. There are no visible musical notes.

In addition to the opera, Makan's plan for Rome is to complete a work for electric guitar and orchestra, commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra, to be premiered this November at Carnegie Hall. He will also finish a trio for flute, viola and harp, commissioned by the Harvard Musical Association, for violist and MIT professor Marcus Thompson.

A tall order for 11 months, but Makan, who owns neither a car nor a television, finds economy in technology. He relies on Finale, a notation program, for experimenting with time and modeling, and on a digital audio workstation for analyzing the frequency components of pre-recorded sounds, en route to creating new ones.

Recent MIT winners of the Rome Prize include Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz, associate professor in Writing and Humanistic Studies, and John Ochsendorf, associate professor of architecture.

A national competition, the Rome Prize is awarded annually to 15 emerging artists in various fields.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 16, 2008 (download PDF).

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