Cornell Electroacoustic Music Center (CEMC)

Lindsay France (UPHOTO)
Lindsay France (UPHOTO)
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The Sound Lab

The Sound Lab is where students build their own analog instruments, namely synthesizers. “People are imagining their own sounds, finding sounds, or in the case of these synthesizers, building them from scratch,” says Ernste. “There’s a return to an interest in analog, and the interplay between analog and digital.”

The synthesizers pictured here without names or labels are all homemade. Students use them to create and manipulate sounds, alongside computers with various software tools or a programming language for audio synthesis and composition known as Super Collider.

The research that takes place in the Sound Lab is open-source, which means items like circuit diagrams are shared with the outside world. The various analog instruments and synthesizers also go directly to performance; various students and faculty pieces and ensembles use the instruments in their performances and compositions.

DIY Synthesizer Workshop
Taylan Cihan's custom electronic instruments

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Microphones and Bubble Wrap/Tonia Ko

The main space of the center often houses graduate student rehearsals and projects. “Students use this space for experimentation,” says Ernste. Here, graduate student Tonia Ko, Music Composition, uses Bubble Wrap as both a drawing and a sound source. Ko uses multiple microphones set up at a single station, running the microphones to a computer to capture and amplify sounds from the plastic material, which is then processed in real time by a software tool called Max/MSP.

In 2015, Ko collaborated with lecturer Michael Compitello, Music, to perform the Bubble Wrap piece titled "Breath, Contained" with percussionist group Sandbox Percussion. Ko’s next composition project is an orchestra piece for Carnegie Hall. “She thinks of them as artistic statements, so what’s the difference?” says Ernste. “I try to bring that attitude, too. Thanks to the culture’s doing, the distinction between these different types of music is basically gone."

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Bowed Metal

Kevin Ernste uses the various instruments shown here in an improvisation ensemble called the Cornell Avant Garde Ensemble (CAGE). In addition to teaching composition, Ernste explores experimental sound development for the purpose of improvisation. As a former drummer, he has experience with cymbals but found a new sound in them by applying string bows to the metal. Much of his sound development is in bowing various sources of metal—cymbals, a gate spring pulled tautly on a 2x4—with different types of bows or instruments. Ernste uses traditional string instrument bows and atypical items such as half of a SuperBall attached to a flexible stick or a glass cup.

“We are sound design people, so that can happen in software through synthesizing new sounds, writing code to make new sounds, recording and processing sounds to find aspects of them that most people don’t hear, or taking a short sound and stretching it out two minutes long,” says Ernste. “A composer might become interested in one detail of sound. Once you start doing that in the sound processing world, you begin asking questions about other things around you and the sounds they would make on their own.”

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Nattang: Graduate Student Project

Nattang is a custom electronic instrument designed and constructed by graduate student Charles Peck, Music Composition. It is used as a controller for laptop performance, in conjunction with software called PureDate (PD).

Like Max/MSP, PD has historical roots with Miller Puckette, a music professor at University of California, San Diego. The software offers a modular programming environment in which users take small objects that perform a simple task and wire them together to create complex networks of tasks.

Nattang has different types of controllers—contact strips that react to touch, traditional knobs, and buttons—to manipulate sound. In PD, Peck can have modules that read the voltages from the contact strips, another that scales the voltages so they’re the appropriate pitch or amplitude, and other modules pass it along to a speaker or synthesizer. All of this, then, can translate into performance.

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Found Sound on a Piano

Ernste oftentimes asks his students to approach quintessential instruments, such as the piano, “like an alien.” Here, hair clips are attached to the strings of the piano, and magnets turn and cause the strings to vibrate to create unusual sounds.

Much of the sound discovery takes place in Ernste’s undergraduate courses, where he asks the students to collect a library of sounds from an instrument. “If they’re a guitar player, I tell them to turn the guitar over and come at it from the neck,” Ernste says. “They find sounds that are rich and arresting. One direction is to record that sound and bring it in as a sound source in the computer and manipulate that.”

Students can play with what Ernste called “the uncanny valley,” where one no longer recognizes the sound source. Another direction is to have students develop sound without a computer and to find techniques to manipulate sound consistently and richly. 

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Student Project Studio

Three studios are available as workstations for student projects, primarily undergraduate students in Ernste's courses “Introduction to Computer Music” and “Computers in Music Performance.” The computers run an array of commercial software, and Ernste provides open-source, free tools so that students can participate in their development. Students use the workstations for a range of musical purposes, Ernste says, from making pop music to song writing to ear training.

Here, Graduate Student Can Bilir, Music Composition, uses an Akai MAX49 keyboard. The keyboard has a Control Voltage (CV) output, which means it’s designed to talk back to analog instruments. 

Connecting Composers and the Stage

The Cornell Electroacoustic Music Center (CEMC), located in Lincoln Hall, provides a space for experimental music development by Cornell faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students. Kevin Ernste, Music, who established the center in 2006 says, “People come in and use this space as a testing ground.”

“Electroacoustic is a weird word,” says Ernste. “I could have called it electronic music or computer music, except that ‘computer’ is too narrow and ‘electronic’ has been grabbed up by a certain genre of music.” Ernste explains that “electroacoustic” illustrates the connection being made between composers at CEMC and the stage. “The computer is not the whole picture,” he says.

To that end, CEMC houses around 10 graduate students, 100 undergraduates, and several faculty interested in combining analog, electronic, and traditional instruments into musical compositions and performances. Ernste hosts a yearly concert series called State of the Art, which brings in musical guests of interest.

Ernste promotes the idea of a lab as a broad, experimental space. Students can build their own instruments, manipulate traditional instruments, develop new sounds on the computer, and more. “As a teacher, I feel an obligation to encourage experimentalism of this kind, not because I think it’s the only path to making good stuff, but because it broadens potential,” Ernste explains.