Engineering Music

Engineering Music from Stony Brook School of Journalism on Vimeo.

By Matthew Gerardi

A performance by Levy Lorenzo looks like musical wizardry. He pulls music out of thin air, draws it from light and leads computers in an a cappella duet.

Preparing for a concert at The Outpost, a non-profit art space hidden within a tightly packed residential street in Ridgewood, Queens, Lorenzo, a percussionist and electronic engineer, stands behind his air marimba.

Levy Lorenzo at work. Photo by Matthew Gerardi.
Levy Lorenzo at work. Photo by Matthew Gerardi.
The device is seemingly nothing more than a white wooden box with two beautifully finished pieces of rosewood on top. As if pushing his way through water, Lorenzo slowly stretches his arm a foot above the rosewood bars. The drum roll of a marimba sounds faintly before he pulls his hand away. He raises and lowers his arms over the bars like a sorcerer conjuring all manner of pitches and volumes. His hands shake with intensity, as if the device is pushing back against him with an invisible force.

Finally, he swings a hand, fingers splayed, stopping only a few inches from the instrument, unleashing a powerful machine gun burst of notes.

“Was that too loud?” Lorenzo asked his friends in the audience. “I want it loud, but I don’t want to kill anyone.”

Performing Electronic Music

The air marimba is just one of the magical electronic instruments designed and built by Lorenzo, a 31-year-old Stony Brook University Doctor of Musical Arts candidate who also holds Master of Engineering degrees in electrical and computer engineering from Cornell University.

His work is part of a movement called electro-instrumental music, which emphasizes the performance aspect of live music, even when using electronic instruments. His instruments are not only designed to be performed live, but also to be practiced and mastered, just like any other musical instrument.

“When we go to see a live concert we want to see someone on stage doing something awesome,” Lorenzo said. “As a performer, it’s your job to deal with the physical, bodily act of making music. So for me, I wanted to make these devices that not just made interesting electronic music, but also that I could play like an instrument and perform electronic music.”

That means making the performance not only sound interesting, but also look interesting. And audiences do notice.

“Even though it’s all a computer thing, he still moves his whole body,” said Irene Lee, an audience member at Lorenzo’s Outpost performance. “That makes it really interesting to watch.”

From Piano to Percussion

Born to Filipino parents in Bucharest – his mother worked in the Phillipines embassy — Lorenzo began playing piano at age 5. His family moved to New Jersey when he was 7 and it was there that he first encountered percussion.

Levy Lorenzo prepares for his set at The Outpost. Photo by Matthew Gerardi.
Levy Lorenzo prepares for his set at The Outpost. Photo by Matthew Gerardi.
When the time came to join the school band, Lorenzo, being a pianist, needed to try something new. His mom suggested saxophone.

“So, I went to my band director and he gives me a saxophone,” Lorenzo said, clacking a pair of drumsticks. “He said, ‘Put your fingers here, here and here and hold this.’ Then he says to me, ‘Levy, you cannot be a saxophone player. Your hands are too small.’”

The band director, Mr. Tintle, suggested percussion, and Lorenzo quickly fell in love with mallet percussion instruments – xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba — which just so happen to be laid out like pianos. He played these instruments through high school and during his stay at Cornell.

The Hamster-Controlled MIDI Sequencer

He first combined music and electronics in his master’s thesis project. Lorenzo was interested in MIDI technology, a language used by computers and electronic instruments to communicate music.

“I didn’t want to build an electronic piano or an electronic trumpet or something,” Lorenzo said. “With this kind of technology you can have any sort of input you want – a knob, a button, an infrared distance sensor.”

It was those sensors that caught Lorenzo’s attention. They use invisible infrared light to measure the distance between the sensor and whatever the light is hitting. He wanted to connect those sensors to a MIDI device and use the measurements to create music (this is the technology at the center of his air marimba as well), but the question became: what would he use as the input for those infrared sensors?

“Something else totally random was happening in my life,” Lorenzo said. “I had a ton of hamsters.”

Lorenzo had kept a pair of hamsters as pets, but that population of two unexpectedly ballooned.

Realizing he had the resources for something unique, Lorenzo divided a hamster tank into six floors and outfitted a distance sensor to each. As the hamsters moved around, they changed the pitch and rhythm of the music output by the MIDI device, creating dynamic music that, thanks to MIDI, could be programmed to emulate any instrument imaginable.

The website required as part of the project started to make its way across the cuteness-obsessed Internet, reaching popular geeky blogs like Boing Boing and Gizmodo. The flash of Internet fame led to an interview on Ecuadorian radio and appearance on cable-channel G4TV’s “Attack of the Show.”

The Definition of Multidisciplinary

After Cornell and a software engineering job at Bose, Lorenzo decided to return to school for music.

“I thought that I was quitting engineering,” Lorenzo said, “but I quickly learned that in contemporary music, and contemporary art in general, electronics, technology and computers were beginning to play a huge part.”

Contemporary musicians and artists have been using new technologies in their work for years, Lorenzo said, but they’re largely unfamiliar with the electronics. The opposite is also true: many engineers have turned their attention towards building musical tools. But unlike engineers who are taught to use devices practically, artists are likely to experiment with new technologies and explore their specificities, leading to more interesting results.

Levy Lorenzo tests out his Air Marimba before performing at The Outpost. Photo by Matt Gerardi.
Levy Lorenzo tests out his Air Marimba before performing at The Outpost. Photo by Matt Gerardi.
Lorenzo’s former teacher Daria Semegen, a composer and the director of electronic music studies at Stony Brook University, calls the result of many of these efforts little more than demonstrations. But Lorenzo’s instruments, she said, are a step above.

“His approach and the musical results are elegant,” Semegen said. “The number one question for me is: is it convincing? And the answer is yes.”

Lorenzo considers his dual background a gift.

“I feel very very fortunate for my background,” he said. “That I’ve done the engineering thing and been immersed in contemporary music for four years. That I can understand both sides.”

According to Semegen, that understanding of both music and engineering is unique among the contemporary music scene.

“Multidisciplinary is just a hot word that gets thrown around academia and very few people are actually multidisciplinary,” Semegen said, “but Levy does define multidisciplinary.”

Living the Dream

Lorenzo left Stony Brook for a Brooklyn loft in August. He’s filled it with percussion equipment and electronic components, but his migration to New York City means much more to him than having a place to store all of his stuff.

“It’s the continuation of my dream come true,” he said. “Moving to New York means that I actually have to do it; to be a professional electronic engineer in the arts; to be a professional musician; to be a professional electronic instrument designer and fit into normal life.”

Living in New York hasn’t been that easy for Lorenzo who says he’s “dying for cash.”

“It’s a hard life,” he said. “I could solve that easily by putting all my energy into finding a 9 to 5 job and I’ve done that in the past and I know I can, but I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the projects I was involved with in the last three months.”

Right now he’s making money by performing or handling sound engineering at concerts once a week and tutoring grade schoolers and high school seniors in math. Lorenzo says this irregular schedule allows him to concentrate on the work that he finds most satisfying.

“When you’re a contemporary artist doing something totally random and out there, you spend a lot of time alone, by yourself, and you’re living this life path that fits with nothing else,” he said. “My Friday nights don’t mean the same as the majority of people that work 9 to 5. I should always be working.”

Teacups and Light

The final instrument of Lorenzo’s performance at The Outpost was something he calls simply, “Teacups and light.”

The house lights darken and Lorenzo flicks on a desk lamp. He grabs hold of a small, black box with two ordinary white teacups on top and begins moving them around.

He moves slowly at first, lifting the teacups slightly. The music he’s creating responds appropriately with timid computerized squeals. The lamp casts a massive, misshapen silhouette behind him, Lorenzo’s head elongated like an alien from a forgotten1950s movie.
Things begin to intensify. Lorenzo pivots on his heels, starting a jerky dance while sliding the cups around in an abbreviated shell game.

His movements, and the sound they produce, become bigger and more complex until he reaches a climax. The teacups lay flat on their brims. There is no sound.

A few seconds later he knocks the cups off the box completely, creating an ear splitting screech. He smiles wildly, grabs the lamp and assaults the now naked light sensors with its beam, circling it around them and drawing it in closer, modulating the resulting banshee scream.
Calmly now, he places the lamp on the table and returns the teacups to the top of the little black box. Again, silence.

Lorenzo looks to the crowd, smiles and nods. He’s finished.

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