Carnegie Mellon University
September 20, 2018

Former Classmates To Play Music from the Future

By Michael Henninger

Julianne Mattera
  • Marketing & Communications
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Carnegie Mellon University is hosting the “Ultimedia Concept, Music From the Future,” a concert that will combine contemporary and computer sounds at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28 at Kresge Theatre on campus.

Eric Ross, a multi-instrumentalist originally from Carbondale, Pennsylvania, says he is happy to make his return to Pittsburgh. He previously played sold-out shows at the Andy Warhol Museum and the Regent Square Theater.

School of Music Instructor Ben Opie, a member of the ERA Ensemble, will be among the performers. Along with the saxophone, Opie plays the theremin. The instrument looks like a flat wooden box with a looped antenna and a vertical antenna protruding from either side. Those antennae sense the proximity of Opie’s hands and create a bizarre and satisfying sound by waving his arms back and forth, coaxing sound from the box like a wizard.

Ross, himself, is a renowned thereminist.

“I was involved with analog synthesizers back in the ‘70s,” Ross said. “We were looking at a catalogue one day and I said, ‘Hey, there’s a theremin!’ So, we ordered it and put it together. I quickly realized this was a serious instrument. It’s very difficult to play. You have to pick the notes literally out of the air. After a few years of working with it, I was able to use it on my first album.”

He has since released 10.

When he heard that Opie also played the theremin, he knew his fellow performers would be, “open to more of an avant garde style. They had the electronics end of it together. It sounded like it would be a really good fit.”

A long-time collaborator with Opie, Computer Science Professor Roger Dannenberg will provide counterpoint to the theremin’s tones with his own punchy trumpet.

Rounding out their quartet will be drummer Ken Foley. The group will perform improvisational music with a mix of traditional and digital instruments, and visual projections from artist Mary Ross, will be used throughout the performance. Mary Ross was Eric’s wife. She died five years ago.

“She’s been one of the pioneers of digital art,” Eric said. “It’s really nice to include her work in one of my live performances.”’

During the show, Ross will play piano, synthesizer, guitar, and theremin.

“That’s my own little orchestra, my own little ensemble there,” he said. “When you add these other guys to the mix, it almost becomes a little chamber orchestra kind of thing.”

Opie and Dannenberg met and started playing music together while studying at Carnegie Mellon in the early 1980s. Dannenberg graduated in 1981 and 1983, with a master’s degree and Ph.D. in computer science, respectively. Opie, who started his studies at CMU and graduated from Duquesne University, now teaches music technology at CMU. Today, more than 35 years later, the two still find occasion to perform together. Both have integrated new technologies into their musical toolkits.

“Virtually all music and all phases of music now involve technology and computers,” Dannenberg said. “People listen to much more recorded music than live music, I believe. Recorded music is all stored, transmitted, selected by computers, and the computers go all the way through the production process.”

Opie said he views new technologies as new avenues to travel, though he doesn’t want to be defined by using them.

“Is digital technology part of your arsenal of things that you do or not?” he asked. “In terms of laptop performance, that’s actually a relatively recent development for me.”

The concert is sponsored by CMU’s School of Music and the Integrative Design, Arts and Technology (IDeATe) Network, which connects diverse strengths across Carnegie Mellon to advance education, research and creative practice. As a participating faculty member in IDeATe, Dannenberg teaches courses related to sound design.

“Neither one of us would say that we need to throw out traditions and do something completely different and new,” Dannenberg said. “We’re both talking about integrating traditional music making and performance, and everything else in music with all the tools that computation brings.”