keith hamel

From wearable instruments to 3D-printed violins

Created eight years ago as a ‘laboratory where music meets technology,’ the Sonic UBC Laptop Sounds and Sensors Class has become a hothouse of innovation


SUBCLASS students. Photo: Takumi Hayashi/UBC

SUBCLASS students. Photo: Takumi Hayashi/UBC

By Colleen O’Connor

A dancer in a wired bodysuit makes a graceful opening gesture and instrumental percussion begins. Her movements quicken as she crosses the Barnett Hall stage; she brings her leg around in a circle and the rhythms become more complex. As both hands touch the suit, digitized pitches layer atop the percussive beats.

A musician sits with a violin perched in her lap. She taps the body of the instrument. Percussion and synth sounds emerge, as colourful geometric shapes collapse, expand and dance on the screen behind her. She picks up her bow and begins to play.

A wearable instrument and a violin that ‘plays’ colour as well as sound: These fascinating projects were developed by former student Kiran Bhumber (BMus’14) in collaboration with Prof. Robert Pritchard, and by Chantelle Ko (BA’18) in Pritchard’s Sonic UBC Laptop Sounds and Sensors Class (SUBCLASS). A core part of the Applied Music Technology Minor, SUBCLASS is a musical laboratory where students become inventors, pushing the boundaries of music and technology.

There’s a huge benefit for students from disciplines collaborating and sharing... it’s inspring
— Dr. Robert Pritchard

The idea behind the course, according to Prof. Pritchard, is to bring students with very different perspectives and skill sets together, give them the tools and the space to create, and watch what happens. “Our students come from music, film, theatre, computer science, engineering, kinesiology and other programs,” he says, “and together they create electronic chamber music that explores brand new ideas in synthesis. There is a huge benefit for students from different disciplines collaborating and sharing each other’s knowledge. It’s inspiring.”

With the guidance of Dr. Pritchard and Dr. Keith Hamel, students with complementary skills are grouped together. A music student with a specific musical concept in mind might be paired with an engineering student in order to realize it — as in Chantelle Ko’s case.


Daniel Tsui demonstrates the 3D printed "Force Touch Gesturally Activated Augmented Violin." The violin uses special sensors to trigger audio filters and sound effects.

Her project, TRAVIS (Touch Responsive Augmented Violin Interface System), involved adding sensors to an acoustic violin, wiring the circuitry, and then writing microprocessor code that tracked her fingerings in real time and generated data. The data was then used in any number of ways, such as processing the violin’s sound or synthesizing new sounds, as well as creating abstract video projections of shapes and colours reflecting the music being performed.

To develop the wireless component, Chantelle worked with electrical engineering students Carol Fu, Kyung Jin Han, Esther Mutinda, and Lily Shao (B.AS’18). They used their combined expertise in music and engineering in order to find creative solutions to the technical challenges posed by the project.

“From an engineering point of view we have the theoretical knowledge that can help with troubleshooting or support whatever issue that Chantelle was dealing with,” Jin Han says.

Dr. Robert Pritchard with students. Photo: Martin Dee

Dr. Robert Pritchard with students. Photo: Martin Dee

Ko presented her project at UBC’s Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Conference, and scored an impressive achievement, winning the 2018 URO Interdisciplinary Award. Other recent highlights include Bhumber’s RUBS bodysuit and doctoral student Brian Topp’s Cliff, an interactive dance project that uses a Kinect motion-tracking camera and sensors that allows the dancer to trigger voices as she moves across the stage.

But SUBCLASS is not just about technical innovation.

“Every project is guided by the question, ‘How do we make art better?’” Pritchard says. As part of their final project, the students must perform an original work with their instruments and interactive sound, video, or lighting. They work in small groups against tight deadlines to create a short piece that is debuted at the end-of-term Bang! Festival of Electroacoustic Music.  

“Our policy is that students do not touch their laptops in performance,” says Prof. Pritchard.

After the performance, each group receives feedback from the class. Everyone benefits from the discussion as the class develops critical learning skills by giving and receiving critiques.

Fidelia Lam’s Broken Thread group project is a good example of this ethos. Lam (BMus’15) and engineering student Simon Hecker used a custom smartphone application to record data from a live chamber music performance — featuring Samantha Ballard (BMus’15) on harp and Bhumber on clarinet — and then looped and regenerated the sound, creating an ethereal, multilayered real-time composition.


UBC student Andrea Wong demonstrates CHIMIRA, a kind of interactive mixing board that combines LEGO Duplo, a webcam, and code

Since SUBCLASS was established eight years ago by Pritchard and Dr. Keith Hamel, the course/lab/ensemble has become a quiet powerhouse at UBC, where highly skilled and sought-after graduates earn exciting career opportunities and win coveted spots at prestigious graduate programs in media and technology studies. Ko is now pursuing a Master of Music in Sonic Arts at the University of Calgary, while Bhumber went on to complete her MA in Media Arts at the University of Michigan in 2018. Lam also earned an MA in Media Arts from the University of Michigan, and is currently a PhD student in Interdisciplinary Media Arts and Practice at the University of Southern California. Current SUBCLASS student Andrea Wong recently won a Place and Sound artist residency with the CRES Media Arts Committee in Vancouver.

SUBCLASS capstone projects in the works include: a 3D-printed violin with wireless sensors, a study of LEDs and synesthetic colours for music, an ultrasonic dulcimer, and a glove that controls vocal effects in heavy metal music.

You can see the inventions and interactive performances for yourself on April 17 at the Bang! Festival in Roy Barnett Recital Hall. Admission is free!


With files from Aryn Strickland

Banner photo: Takumi Hayashi

Comings and Goings

Dr. Valerie Whitney and Dr. Richard Kurth

Dr. Valerie Whitney and Dr. Richard Kurth

This summer, Dr. Richard Kurth completed his second term as Director of the School of Music. In June he published “A Letter, a Soliloquy, two Duets, and a Sextet,” his reflections on the School and his time at the helm.

Following in his footsteps for the 2018-19 academic year is Dr. Alexander Fisher, in the role of Acting Director, and Dr. John Roeder, as Associate Director for term one, and Dr. Keith Hamel, Associate Director for term two.  Thank you, Dr. Kurth, and welcome, Drs. Fisher, Roeder, and Hamel!  

Dr. Valerie Whitney joined the School of Music as Assistant Professor of Horn , starting in the 2018-19 academic year. An accomplished performer and teacher, Dr. Whitney will play a leading role in the brass division at the School of Music. Her duties will include undergraduate and graduate studio instruction, brass chamber music coaching and coordination, and brass curriculum leadership — all while working in partnership with our accomplished team of VSO principals and other top professionals in the city.

Sessional lecturer and alumna Dr. Laurel Parsons (MA’91, PhD’03) recently accepted a full-time position as Associate Teaching Professor of music theory and aural skills at the University of Alberta.

Jazz visionary John Stetch goes back to school

Six-time Juno nominee and graduate student John Stetch talks about his restless, path-breaking career, the excitement of re-envisioning classical music through a jazz lens, and his decision to return to school 

Text by Tze Liew
Video by Colleen O’Connor

Over the past three decades, John Stetch has made a name for himself as one of Canada’s most innovative jazz pianists and composers. He has performed with contemporary greats such as Mark Turner and Chris Cheek and has recorded sixteen albums, including his most recent release, Ballads. Yet in the middle of a successful career that has earned him critical acclaim and half a dozen Juno Award nominations, he made the extraordinary decision to come to UBC to pursue an M.Mus in Composition.

Part 1: John Stetch talks about his decision to go back to school and the importance of community.

“I wanted to get a Master’s because the nature of work and teaching [in music] has changed in many places, and often requires more than just a Bachelor’s degree. I knew I was going to be living in Vancouver, and I’d heard of UBC and its beautiful campus. There wasn’t really a jazz program around, so I thought a Composition Master’s would be a great fit, since I’ve been starting to write some classical chamber music, not just jazz,” he says.

Stetch is no stranger to change. Ambitious and experimental, he has always forged his own path, inventing new techniques and musical styles — for instance, fusing classical and jazz music in his compositions. Reinterpreting well-known classical works by Mozart, Bach and Chopin through the language of jazz, he is fearless in altering the chords and rhythms, adding new textures with techniques like plucking the inside of the piano to create exciting new renditions, while still keeping the originals recognizable.

“I have this instinct to want to play a little differently every day,” he says. “There are so many interesting possibilities. What if you double up the octaves? What if you play the scale down instead of up? Or change the ending completely?”

Stetch was inspired to play classical music, especially after listening to Glenn Gould playing Bach. Gould’s daring, percussive style pointed to interesting possibilities within the classical canon. But Stetch, a jazz musician, wasn’t sure how to approach the material at first.  

Part 2: Stetch demonstrates his unique approach to piano, performing a reinterpretation of Mozart K 333, Third Movement.

“It was too strange to play Chopin in a jazz club,” he says. “So I ended up rearranging the classical pieces, making them my own style, and treating them as homages to the original composers. Now I can perform them in both jazz and classical contexts.”

Stetch has reworked pieces such as Mozart’s Sonata No. 13 in B-Flat, Chopin’s A-Flat Major Polonaise and Bach’s Italian Concerto, which he recently performed in a Wednesday Noon Hours concert. The Mozart Sonata is a bluegrass arrangement, inspired by a banjo concert he attended. The Chopin and Bach arrangements are jazz-influenced – in Chopin, he plays with odd rhythms to vary and contrast with the original; in Bach, he mixes time signatures to elongate or shorten the theme.

“Mozart and bluegrass were a perfect match. Bluegrass usually has a lot of fast notes, an obvious pulse, and the kind of tonic-dominant-subdominant chord progression that Mozart’s pieces [also] have,” he says.

For Stetch, the interaction between jazz and classical is a two-way street. While bringing jazz improvisation techniques to classical pieces, he also admires classical music for its emphasis on organisation, and tries to bring that into his jazz playing. “I’ve often heard complaints that jazz rambles on too much, that it’s too complicated and random. I don’t like that myself, so I try to keep my playing organized like classical pieces.”

Part 3: Stetch talks about the appeal of experimentation and how he combines classical and jazz music in his compositions.

For such an accomplished pianist, Stetch started piano relatively late, at age 18. He grew up learning clarinet and saxophone, and originally pursued studies in saxophone at the University of Alberta. There he was introduced to figures such as Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarett and Wynton Marsalis, and was struck by the beauty and the rhythmic and harmonic possibilities of the piano.

“I stopped saxophone and switched to piano. I was addicted to it, obsessed with the harmonies and sounds that can be gotten from chords.”

He went on to study piano at McGill University, and later moved to New York, where, with the help of a grant, he sustained himself as a musician for two years and became a pianist for Rufus Reid’s band.

“I worked really hard and even felt behind when I first arrived at NYC, playing with people my age who had been playing all their lives. But at age 26 I found a classical teacher who changed my life. Burton Hatheway, who is now 86, had to get me to forget everything I knew and start from the beginning. It was one of the hardest things I've ever been through — it took about five years to make progress and 10 for it to really sink in.” 

While in New York, Stetch threw himself into the scene. He did so many gigs that he learned to be quick-minded and versatile – playing through unfamiliar standards, figuring out keys, working with singers and making sure the phrases flowed beautifully, all on the go. His improvisations didn’t always work out the way he wanted, though – there were always ups and downs.

Part 4: Stetch demonstrates his reinterpretation of Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat.

“Sometimes they were magical performances, and sometimes I really disliked my own music. You’re your own worst critic, after all. But through the repeated formative experience of trying to improvise and having it fail so many times, the desire to make it better pushes you to find ways to improve.”

It was these heady experiences of failure and growth that made John the improvisational, forward-looking musician he is today — always changing, always evolving. Counterintuitive though it may seem, his decision to uproot and move across the country to study at UBC made perfect sense.

“It’s been a long time since I got feedback on my compositions, so I thought it’d be really neat to get honest feedback and criticism from people like Stephen Chatman, Dorothy Chang, and Keith Hamel, who’ve been listening critically to new music for decades,” he says. “It’s a special introduction to Vancouver, having this instant community of composers to work with.”

At the School of Music, Stetch is challenging himself to compose for instruments he has never worked with before, such as strings and brass.

“John is one of the most naturally and innately talented musicians I have worked with,” says Hamel. “He seems to have the ability to quickly absorb diverse musical styles, to understand the musical materials that comprise each style and to construct new works, which contain elements of the model but are uniquely personal. He understands composition as an act of communication between musicians and an audience, and he always writes with this foremost in his mind.”

Most recently, Stetch composed a piece for brass quintet for the ChanFare series performed by Thunderbird Brass this October at UBC’s Chan Centre. He will tour New York with his band Vulneraville in January.

Banner image by Takumi Hayashi/UBC School of Music


BONUS FOOTAGE: John Stetch on how to play the piano like a string instrument

Video: Tze Liew/UBC

Jocelyn Morlock wins WCMA 'Composer of the Year' award

Image: Break Out West

Image: Break Out West

This weekend, School of Music alumna and lecturer Jocelyn Morlock (MMus’96, DMA’02) won Classical Composer of Year at the 2018 Western Canadian Music Awards. The award is the latest highlight in a big year for Morlock that also includes a Juno Award for Best Classical Composition for her orchestral work, “My Name is Amanda Todd.”

Congratulations to Morlock and all of the WCMA nominees! The Classical Composer category was dominated by faculty and alumni from the School of Music’s vibrant Composition Division, including Morlock and professors Keith Hamel and Stephen Chatman.

Learn more about composition at UBC School of Music.

New recordings

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Two new compositions by Professor Keith Hamel — “Touch” and “Corona” — appear on Music4Eyes+Ears, a multimedia project created by pianist Megumi Masaki. The project “explores how sound, image, text and movement can interact in live performance.”

Watch the album trailer

 

Professor Stephen Chatman released Dawn of Night (CMC Centrediscs, 2017), a collaboration with Conductor Hilary Apfelstadt and the University of Toronto’s Macmillan Singers that weds original music with the poetry of Joanna Lilley, Christina Rossetti, Sarah Teasdale, and Tara Wohlberg and others.

Listen to Dawn of Night (Spotify)

 
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Composer and sessional instructor Jocelyn Morlock (MMus’96, DMA’02)’s new album, Halcyon (CMC Centrediscs), features a who’s who of great Canadian musicians, including baritone Tyler Duncan (BMus’98), cellists Ariel Barnes and Joseph Elworthy, conductor Leslie Dala (MMus’96), pianists Corey Hamm and Erika Switzer (BMus’97, MMus’00), vibraphonist Vern Griffiths (BCom’90, BMus’94), violinist Nicholas Write, and soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen (BMus’00). Morlock’s new piece “Petrichor” appears on Duo Concertante's Incarnation, and her Juno Award-winning composition “My Name Is Amanda Todd” appears on the National Arts Centre’s Life Reflected. 

Listen to Halcyon (Spotify)

 
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Also in December, Sessional lecturer Alan Matheson and Wade Mikkola released the second volume of their Souvenirs project, a collection of jazz interpretations of Finnish composers, on AMK Recordings.

Listen to Souvenirs (Spotify)

 

 

The Vancouver-based saxophone quartet Saxophilia, featuring sessional lecturer Julia Nolan and alumnus Colin MacDonald (BMus ’93), released their debut self-titled album in December on Redshift Records. The album includes compositions by Professor Dorothy Chang, alumnus Peter Hannan (BMus ’75), John Burke, and Colin MacDonald. Listen to Saxophilia (Spotify)


Julia Nolan also appears on Chor Leoni Men’s Choir’s new album, Wandering Heart, on Elektra Women’s Choir’s latest, Your One and Only Life, and on Sea and Sky Ensemble's Chromaticity.

Composer Denis Bedard’s new album, Works for Organ and Other Instruments, features Nolan on saxophone and Katherine Evans, the School of Music’s Manager of Admissions, on trumpet. 

New recordings

Contemporary chamber music ensemble Standing Wave released their latest album, New Wave, on Redshift Records this January. The album features School of Music lecturers Christie Reside (flutes) and Vern Griffiths (percussion). The album includes compositions by Michael Oesterle (BMus'92) and was recorded and produced by Will Howie (BMus'04).
 

 

Redshift Records' brand-new compliation, Redshift XVfeatures works by Prof. Keith Hamel, alumnus Benton Roark (MMus'07, DMA'13). With performances by School of Music ensemble-in-residence PEP (Piano and Erhu Project) as well as Standing Wave and Saxophilia. Performers include Corey Hamm (piano), Paolo Bortolussi (flute), Christie Reside (flute), Vern Griffiths (percussion), Julia Nolan (soprano sax), and Mark Takeshi MacGregor (DMA'12) (flute).

 
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In 2016 Chrystal Records released Double Concertos for Violin and Clarinet, part of their "Making of a Medium" series, which features Prof. Stephen Chatman's 20-minute concerto in four movements for clarinet, violin, and orchestra. One reviewer describes the piece as "a joyous, rhapsodic work that lives up to its putative subject matter." 

 
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In 2016, the chamber duo Couloir — featuring UBC lecturer Heidi Krutzen (harp) and Ariel Barnes (cello) — teamed up with composers James B. Maxwell and Nico Muhly to release Maxwell Muhly & Couloir, a recording that features "gossamer, glacial sonorities as well as aggressive, pounding rhythmic structures, all bound together over the course of an epic sonic journey."

In October Couloir won a Western Canadian Music Award for Classical Music Artist/Ensemble of the Year.

 

In March, Dálava — the award-winning duo of Ph.D. student Julia Ulehla (vocals) and Aram Bajakian (guitar) — released The Book of Transfigurations, a new album of Moravian folk songs channeled through 21st century jazz, world, and post-rock music. The Georgia Straight calls it "astonishing music."

 
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Also in March, composer Matthew Emery (BMus'14) released Sing Your Song, an album of choral works performed by Amabile Choirs of London, Canada and released on the Canadian Music Centre's Centrediscs label. 

Amabile’s performances and Emery’s writing "question and challenge the human spirit and exemplify why Canadian choral music is renowned around the world."