Wired for Sound

An instrument designed for the electronic age (Photo by Rachel Robertson)
Daren Keck’s one-of-a-kind musical instrument produces music with random notes. (Photo by Gale Sumida)

JUST TO LOOK AT IT, YOU’D NEVER KNOW Daren Keck’s handmade gizmo is a musical instrument. A flat plastic contraption about the size of a thin paperback novel, it bristles with wires of yellow, red, green and black alongside a row of stainless-steel switches. Any resemblance to, say, a violin or an oboe is nil.

But then Keck plugs it in to his laptop and plays. A haunting composition of layered notes flows forth as he toggles the switches to produce improvisational patterns. He created this mix — sounds that are at once ethereal and technological — using samples of single notes from recordings from a 14th-century songbook by the women’s a cappella group Anonymous 4.

So how did a computer science student at Oregon State University produce this unique sound from a one-of-a-kind electronic instrument? It all started with a serendipitous meeting at the Mac Store in Corvallis, where he works part-time. One day, in walked Shawn Trail, director of performance and technology in the Department of Music. While Trail was shopping for computer equipment, he mentioned to Keck the course he teaches in physical music computing.

This was Keck’s chance to knit his music and computer skills together. “It really fit all my interests, and the breadth of the class he was describing sounded pretty exciting to me,” Keck says.

An Early Start

Keck started playing piano as a child growing up in Florence. But his passion for music really took hold when he began composing songs on a computer. At the University of Washington, he earned a bachelor’s degree in digital and experimental arts. Now at Oregon State, he’s focusing on game design in the College of Engineering. Trail’s class opened up a whole new dimension for him.

Computer science student Daren Keck demonstrates his electronic musical instrument for music instructor Shawn Trail. (Photo by Rachel Robertson)
Computer science student Daren Keck (left) demonstrates his electronic musical instrument for music instructor Shawn Trail. (Photo by Gale Sumida)

“The class is about realizing you can be your own designer and your own engineer,” says Trail.

For the final class project, Keck integrated music theory and computer science to create an instrument specific to his musical tastes. “I’m pretty obsessed with choir music,” he says. “The clarity of voice makes it easier to hear chord progressions, and I wanted a way to randomly generate chords using voice.”

Keck’s instrument randomly selects notes and their duration. He uses a minimalist composition technique called “phasing” in which notes gradually offset each other. “Over time, the pattern between the notes is always changing, but the lines themselves stay the same,” he says. “It’s very meditative for me to listen to that type of music.”

Performing Live

At first, Keck worried about how electronic music would play in front of a live audience. With that in mind, he created a device to control the rate of note generation, the range of notes and the number of voices overlaid. This allows him to compose in the moment with the same risks as any live performer, thus ensuring stronger audience engagement.

Trail invited Keck to perform live at a faculty-and-student concert last spring called Spatial Shifting. For the performance, Keck added abstract digital art created by Trail, which played behind him. A stereo panning feature gave the audience a sense of the sound moving around the room.

“I was able to focus on and interact with the device as an instrument, and it felt very natural,” Keck says. “That performance turned out to be the best composition so far.”

Keck continues to work with Trail on new projects to push the limits of music and performance innovation. Last fall, they worked with collaborators on a multimedia opera that included high-tech visual and sound effects, such as a moon and clouds that moved across a wall during the performance.

Based on an article by Rachel Robertson