The Atlanta music/technology collective known as Sonic Generator traces its origins to a happenstance meeting of two worlds. Back in 2004, Georgia Tech professor Aaron Bobick was taking his daughter to flute lessons at the home of Tom and Jessica Sherwood. Ms. Sherwood is an accomplished performer and instructor, while husband Tom is principal percussionist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. While Bobick waited for his daughter to complete the day’s requisite scales and arpeggios, the guys talked shop.
“I shared with Aaron some of my ideas about playing contemporary chamber music and he encouraged me to approach Tech about getting involved with the music department,” Sherwood says. “Obviously, Tech is a technology-centric school, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we put together an ensemble focused on the intersection of technology and music?’”
“There’s no reason to think that music is static and that its forms can’t be fundamentally changed by new technologies,” says Bobick, chair of the School of Interactive Computing in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech and former director of the Graphics, Visualization & Usability (GVU) Center.
Ultimately, a meeting was arranged between Sherwood; Frank Clark, professor and chair of the School of Music; and Gil Weinberg, associate professor and director of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology. The group gave the green light to Sonic Generator, which functions as ensemble-in-residence at Georgia Tech, sponsored by the GVU Center and College of Architecture in collaboration with the Center for Music Technology and the School of Music.
No hobbyists here
The members of Sonic Generator are extensively credentialed performers with roots in the Atlanta music community. In addition to his regular gigs with the ASO and SG, Sherwood functions as the ensemble’s artistic director, guiding the repertory and directing special projects. Jessica is a member of the Woodruff Arts Center’s Arts4Learning Collaborative and teaches Irish flute through the Atlanta Irish Music School in Roswell, Georgia.
Ted Gurch (clarinet) has been the associate principal/E-flat clarinetist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 1989. An artist-in-residence at Kennesaw State University and artist affiliate at Emory University, he supervises the clarinet section of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra.
Helen Hwaya Kim (violin) is the assistant concertmaster of the Atlanta Opera Orchestra and assistant professor of violin at Kennesaw State University. Brad Ritchie (cello) is a 14-year veteran of the Atlanta Chamber Players and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Tim Whitehead (keyboards) sits on the piano faculty of the Georgia Academy of Music in Atlanta.
Composer and electronics wizard Jason Freeman, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Music, is Sonic Generator’s executive director. He handles practical and administrative duties including making sure the equipment and technology functions as advertised, serves as liaison with the university, and oversees advertising and fund-raising efforts.
Sherwood and Freeman believe technology is one of the keys to smoothing a pathway, which historically has dissuaded mainstream audiences from showing a whole lot of love for contemporary chamber and classical music. For many listeners the term “electronic music” still translates into Wendy Carlos playing a Bach fugue or body-modified twentysomethings tapping on a Game Boy console, depending on the polling group.
“Many works in the repertory are not easy to comprehend at first and may require multiple listening sessions before they can be appreciated or it might be that, realistically, only 500, rather than five million, people will ever appreciate a particular work,” Freeman says. “But if you’re making a strong connection with those 500 people, that is a very meaningful accomplishment.”
“It can be a struggle coming up with works that are musically interesting and engaging from a technology standpoint,” acknowledges Sherwood.
Sonic Generator has performed a John Cage piece that incorporates software on an iPhone and a composition by Freeman that calls for playing laptops. Other works have incorporated wine glasses, comic strips and car speakers.
One of Sonic Generator’s first concerts featured Sherwood in a duet for large drums with a robot named Shimon; a subsequent performance showcased the duo on dueling marimbas. The brainchild of Gil Weinberg, Shimon utilizes algorithms based on computational modeling of music perception, interaction, and improvisation to “play” with humans in real-time. Four “arms” attached to a moving platform strike the keys or instrument surface while a cantilevered “bobbing head” equipped with an electronic “eye” moves in concert with its human accompanists.
Sherwood describes playing with Shimon as “one of the most complicated, sophisticated projects we’ve ever done.”
Vibrating the air
In June 2011, Sherwood & Co. presented SONICpalooza, a ten-hour marathon of performances featuring compositions by Steve Reich, David Lang, Phillip Glass, John Luther Adams, former ASO composer-in-residence Alvin Singleton, and others. Among the highlights was the local premiere of George Crumb’s
Unto the Hills: American Songbook III, a cycle of Appalachian folk songs scored for percussion quartet, piano and soprano, featuring Atlanta-based vocalist and radio host Wanda Yang Temko.
Free and open to the public, SONICpalooza was staged in the cavernous Galleria lobby at the Woodruff Arts Center. By design, a transient audience attended performances throughout the festival, which closed with a mesmerizing rendition of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.
SONICpalooza was followed a couple of months later by a production of Maa, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s extravagant, immersive, multi-media ballet. Written in 1991 for chamber ensemble and live electronics, Maa featured Sonic Generator in collaboration with the gloATL dance troupe and ASO music director Robert Spano. The two-night run at Symphony Hall was only the second time Maa has been presented in the U.S.
“The fact that Joe Bankoff, the president of the Woodruff Arts Center, is a big fan of Sonic Generator is an indication of the level of interest welling up within the mainstream arts community,” says Bobick. “It’s not a case of being tolerant of the fringe; they are deeply intrigued by this stuff.”
As Sonic Generator approaches its sixth year, its members, collaborators and supporters can look back on an impressive list of accomplishments not least among them expanding the playing field for contemporary classical and electronic chamber music in Atlanta.