New Electronic Frontier

Christopher Dobrian of UCI's Gassmann Studio lets the microchips do the jamming

A jazz pianist hunches over the keyboard. His right hand ripples over a jagged theme while his left lays into a bluesy riff that fits like an Isotoner. His band buddies don't need a chart to keep up. In a flash, the drums and bass take the groove and run with it. The hornist picks up the lick, turns it upside-down, and sets up a complex call-and-answer routine with the ivories man.

This improv scene could play itself out in a TriBeCa nightclub, a jazz dive in Chicago, or the cellar of some smoky Paris boîte-except for one thing: the only human onstage is the pianist; the rest of his combo are computers.

Someday, machines could be the ideal band mates. No more drunken barroom brawls. No more expensive coke rehabs. No more having to skip town at 3 a.m. to elude some jealous mobster boyfriend and his goons. In fact, this musical scenario may be just a few years-or months-off. And if electronic-music impresario Christopher Dobrian has his way, it'll be playing at UC Irvine.

A professor with one foot each in the UCI music and computer sciences departments, Dobrian is director of the school's Gassmann Electronic Music Studio. Fortyish and gaunt with a close-to-the-hardware nerdly air, he's a disciple of Bernard Rands, Morton Feldman and other gurus of the contempo music savant-garde. He arrived on the Irvine campus three years ago to run the studio, and through its attendant series of free electronic-music concerts, he has been introducing his smallish, brave audiences to the most imaginative performers he could find on the electronic vanguard.

"I particularly wanted to focus on people who do things live onstage, as opposed to people who do things in the studio and then play tapes," he says. "It started with a conscious decision to invite people who are decidedly non-mainstream, who aren't the old guard of computer music, but rather the young folks who are starting to do new and interesting things."

A $200,000 bequest from the late composer Remi Gassmann, who died in 1982, provided the seed money to establish a professional studio for electronic and experimental music at UCI's School of the Arts. The university made a few abortive attempts to jump-start the venture in the late '80s, but the Gassmann Studio didn't really pick up steam until Dobrian was hired away from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where he was interim director of the computer music and art facilities.

Dobrian admits that UCI is coming around to electronics a little late, although he jokes that it's partly a blessing "because we're not burdened down with a lot of old equipment. My attitude is not to duplicate what [other] schools are doing, but rather to try to train students to do very experimental composition-in other words, to push the technology to its unconventional limits."

That means doing for computer music what Chopin did for the repetition-action piano, what Paganini did for the Tourte violin bow, or what Hendrix did for the Stratocaster. The new electronic frontiers are real-time processing and artificial intelligence, and Dobrian's currently working with jazz musicians Kei Akagi and Pedro Eustache to figure out how to get a computer to improvise. "We just started doing it this winter," he reports. "Right now, we're kicking into high gear."

Akagi is an LA-based pianist and UCI lecturer who tours regularly with jazz-sax man Stanley Turrentine. Flutist Eustache has played with the Venezuelan Orquesta Sinfónica, studied Indian music with Ravi Shankar and sold his services (not to mention his soul) to Yanni.

"He's quite literally all over the map," says Dobrian. "They're both very intellectual players as well as brilliant musicians, and they have lots of good ideas about how to do things, so I've decided that I want to be quiet and listen to them and their ideas about how musicians make music."

They've already had a planning session to map out simple things for the computer to do, and Dobrian is now at work coding the program. In the coming weeks, they plan to build on the computer's repertoire, and if all goes well, they hope to put on a jazz-improv concert as early as this spring.

Eustache-who appears in the Gassmann series in March-is interested in the real-time processing of sound. He uses various sensors, or transducers, attached to his body so that his motions, gestures and positions offer several levels of simultaneous control before the sound reaches listeners' ears. While playing soprano sax, for example, he might point his horn at the audience to add a big reverb to the amplified sound.

Akagi is interested in something more fundamental to jazz tradition and technically more challenging. He wants an improvisational cyber partner that, like a flesh-and-blood musician, can keep up with him lick for lick. The problem has two levels, says Dobrian. First is the cognitive issue of how the computer understands what a player is doing musically.

"How do you get a computer to parse the notes he's playing and sense the key he's in, or where the beat is? That's especially tough in jazz, where the pianist's notes are almost never played on the beat. Who really knows how we understand music?"

The second challenge is to teach the computer to have ideas of its own and to choose from among them, not in a random way, but with the same underlying logic that a musician uses. "I don't pretend to think that I would program a computer to do anything like what an improviser would do," Dobrian admits. "But, rather, could I get a computer to do some sort of response to what a human performer does that a human performer finds interesting enough to want to play along with it?

"My interest now is to see what the computer wants to do, if that's not too anthropomorphic a way to put it. In other words, what are the sorts of things that a computer is good at doing, and how can we have it do those things in such a way that convinces us that it's music? That requires a very open mind to be willing to experience these new types of music."

The Gassmann Electronic Music Series, featuring Pedro Eustache, at UC Irvine Concert Hall, W. Peltason Dr. & Mesa Rd., Irvine, (949) 824-2787. March 10, 8 p.m. Free. All ages.

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