Songs take shape, literally, at Connecticut College symposium

Martin Wattenberg, co-director of Google's Big Picture Visualization Research Group, delivers the keynote address Friday for the 13th Biennial Symposium on Arts and Technology, a three-day event that ended Saturday.
Martin Wattenberg, co-director of Google's Big Picture Visualization Research Group, delivers the keynote address Friday for the 13th Biennial Symposium on Arts and Technology, a three-day event that ended Saturday. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

What does a song look like?

If we could somehow make art out of the inside of Brian Wilson's or Mozart's brain while they worked their mystical, musical magic, what would we see? And could we frame it and hang it over the sofa?

As explained Friday morning by Martin Wattenberg during his keynote address at Connecticut College's 13th Biennial Arts and Technology Symposium, one method of capturing the visuals of melody is a technique he calls "The Shape of Song."

Using the infinite spin-out extrapolations of a computer, and inputting the mathematical scores of a specific song, Wattenberg, co-director of Google's Big Picture Visualization Group, described a program that recognizes repeated musical sequences and notates them onscreen with translucent arches. Using a huge video screen in Evans Hall, Wattenberg showed a series of colorful "artworks" the computer made with the program, having analyzed tunes of different complexities like "Mary Had a Little Lamb," Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," and three of Bach's "Goldberg Variations." Depending on the complexities of each song, the arches created striking and multifaceted patterns - an incredibly structured form of abstract art.

Multiply that one isolated example times three days times a wide spectrum of participating scholars and computer technicians and, well, a lot of really smart people, and you get "Aesthetics + Creative Pathways," the theme of this year's symposium. Presented by the school's Ammerman Center, the event took place Thursday through Saturday.

Comprising document presentations, installations, performances, seminars, multimedia concerts and more, the symposium encompassed a wide variety of traditional artistic disciplines as blasted through the prism of computer possibility.

"It's going very well, and there have been a lot of very interesting things happening," Libby Friedman, associate director for the Ammerman Center, said. "There's a great mixture of art, music, theater and dance professionals here that wouldn't otherwise be in the same place at the same time. And what they're doing in terms of technology is something we're very excited about, particularly in bringing these people and their presentations to the students here."

One presentation, "Poetry Generation," by Conn College poet in residence Charles Hartman, explored the possibilities of whether a computer, if provided with a large enough sample base, actually can create functional literature or poetry through a totally random selection process. Sort of the Internet version of the thousand-monkees-typing-Shakespeare construct.

Hartman's answer, essentially, is no - not yet. Nonetheless, as programs provided by humans get more complex, who knows? He also showed several examples of interesting concrete poetry generated by computers. A highly visual form of poetry where the shape, arrangement, color and typography of the words contribute as much to the work as more traditional elements of meaning, rhythm and context.

Another segment was called "Using Motion Capture to Synthesize Dance Movements." An extensive visual vocabulary of ballet steps by professional dancers were individually videotaped. Each bit of choreography was tracked and diagrammed by computer and the model images were then animated and separately logged. The programmer then can trigger any sequence and see the animated image perform those dance routines.

Does that mean new dances can be created effortlessly? Well, yes and no.

"The hardest part is to take the motions and transitions and put them together as smoothly as possible," said Bridget Baird, a Conn College professor of mathematics and computer science who helped make the presentation.

Ultimately, across the spectrum of arts disciplines, the potential of the evolving creative marriage of computer technology and the human brain is developing at an almost scary pace.

"This is a really good year for the symposium," said acclaimed choreographer and Conn professor of dance David Dorfman, who moderated some of the symposium's panels. "If you think about it, these aren't just talks but are artistic performances. It engages the listener on a completely new and different level. It helps you not only see into the minds and process of these special artists, but helps you look at art itself in new ways."

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