When Tech and Music Collide!

How do you play a bicycle? Does a pendulum always sound how you’d think? As music educators become more and more acquainted with STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics), the more creative work is made and the more we realize just how much there is to discover at the intersection of technology and art!

Paul Leary with one of his instruments.

In celebration of the golden anniversary of the Apollo 8 space mission, artist Paul Leary combined science and music into a composition called “Larger Than Us” at the Museum of Science and Technology in Syracuse, NY last weekend. Leary is a professor of audio design, production, and music at SUNY Oswego. He writes and performs “choral music inspired by early Renaissance polyphony and some beat-based electronic music in addition to popular electronic compositions.”

During the performance, in cooperation with the Center for New Music, Leary played the composition with instruments of his own design. The instruments combine science, mechanics, and music and were accompanied by a seven-piece chamber ensemble to evoke the vastness and complexities of space.

These electronic instruments, Leary explains in a WNYC interview, are in-sync with a video track and a screen which tells the conductor of the chamber ensemble the tempo and the beat of the recorded portions of the composition. The conductor, Heather Buckman, then watches the information about the track on the screen while conducting the musicians–no small feat!

The biggest challenge, Leary says, of performing the piece, is staying on tempo with the recorded portion of the composition visually while conducting the ensemble in real time.

Paul Leary’s aim in this piece was to reconcile the physical gestures of making music with a visual element the audience can understand. To illustrate this connection between audio and visuals, Leary uses a pendulum to lend a visual aid to electronic music– something he calls kinetic motion controllers. “You see motion on a machine,” Leary says, “just like it does on a guitar.”

The eight-foot-tall pendulum is hand-powered and has a counterweight so he can change how fast the pendulum swings, and therefore the tempo of the music the machine makes. He also uses electromagnetic bicycle wheels and an accelerometer to produce “haunting electronic effects” in his music.

You can see these bicycle wheels in action in the video above! As his plays the flute, he begins to turn the wheels, which send signals to his computer to play the accompanying sounds. As the wheels turn faster, the music speeds up, and the sounds associated with one wheel spinning are different than the sounds from two wheels. His pendulum works in a similar way.

To create the video track for “Larger Than Us,” Leary used software to animate images of space from NASA, making galaxies, planets, and stars come to life on screen.

“It’s so satisfying to make things,” Leary says in an interview with syracuse.com. “I’m inspired by all different types of music, and I embrace many different influences in my own work.”

To learn more about the intersection of science and music in Paul Leary’s work, listen to his interview on WNYC here.

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