How can you use technology to elevate music?

7 Jun 2019

Seth Cluett at Inspirefest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Seth Cluett explains his work at Bell Labs and its long legacy of working with artists to create new innovations, and introduces the International Contemporary Ensemble’s Levy Lorenzo.

Seth Cluett opened his talk by guiding a rapt Inspirefest 2019 audience through a soft-spoken game of ‘Simon Says’. Sit up a little straighter. Clench your shoulders right up to your ears and then let them fall again. Breathe in, breathe out, as you always have, but be more consciously aware of it.

Cluett has been artist in residence at Bell Labs for two years. He, as he puts it, “interjects” himself in with the scientists. “They make a piece and they share it on Instagram and everybody mutually benefits from the shared clicks and likes … and there’s some added value of feeling as though it’s a soft face for the corporate body.”

Cluett said that he occupies a unique position at Bell Labs. He’s probably one of the only people who has lateral access to all teams while simultaneously not being in leadership. “So I find myself connecting the dots in ways that don’t normally get connected.”

He explained that Bell Labs has been a trailblazer in the artist-in-residence practice; it has been one of its schemes since the late 1920s, when it linked in with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra to do telecommunications research in the basement of Academy Hall in Philadelphia. This work lead to the invention of high-fidelity audio, along with the term ‘hi-fi’.

“It was all because they needed, they wanted to be able to capture the entire range of the orchestra, in volume and frequency response, and transmit it over a telephone line.”

Bringing people closer to music

Technology is not often associated with genuine human connection. If anything, it is credited with furthering human loneliness and isolation – which is often warranted.

Cluett’s work is different. If anything, he wants to use technology to enable and improve connection, much in the way that Bell Labs has a legacy of using scientific acumen to augment musical experience. Cluett takes it a step further.

He applies 3D-printed apparatuses to improve a musician’s connection to their instrument, such as the modifications he made to Rebekah Heller’s bassoon to give her even more control over how the sound it emits would be projected to an audience. Cluett has also used his innovations to emulate the closer connection a player has with their instrument, such as with a violin, within a loudspeaker, so that the player feels “connected to the electronic augmentation”.

Often, the changes aren’t entirely perceptible. That’s the whole point. “[That’s] what I want. That it becomes seamless, that it’s part of the system, that it’s not trying to rethink … but add technology in a way that enhances, enforces, reinforces what it’s like to be a chamber musician.”

Connecting to electronic sound

Levy Lorenzo, the technical director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, has a background in both classical percussion and electrical and computer engineering, two seemingly diametric opposites that he maintains are, in fact, not so different.

Lorenzo uses his hands to make sound, something that informs his decisions as a software engineer or a circuit designer, because it alerts him to the fact that with electronics, you don’t immediately get the instant feedback you do through playing. “It’s sort of a Newtonian conservation of energy where if I blow hard or I strike, then that is a connection to my action. With electronics, there can be this disconnect.”

Lorenzo and Cluett sought to bridge that disconnect. To see how they fared, check out their video in full above.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2020 are available now.

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic