A Composer's Muse Takes the Form of a Technology Institute

Erik Jepsen

Rand Steiger
November 07, 2010

Composers have long been the beneficiaries of new technology, drawing inspiration from leading scientists and inventors and employing the latest innovations in their music.

Now, Rand Steiger, a composer and professor of music at the University of California at San Diego, will have the opportunity to work firsthand with scientists involved in cutting-edge research and even provide the engineers with new ideas about how their inventions can be used musically.

In July, Mr. Steiger began his two-year tenure as composer-in-residence at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, a research center meant to spur collaboration and innovation across a wide spectrum of research disciplines. Mr. Steiger, who was chairman of San Diego's music department from 2006 through this June, plans to continue his exploration of how digital technology can respond to and modify the sounds of acoustic instruments. "Composers have always been involved in not just employing computers but in how to use computers to make music," he says.

At least 15 musical and visual artists are employed at the institute, and Ramesh R. Rao, director of its San Diego division, says composers and other artists are often better than the engineers at exploring the full range of possibilities that new technology creates.

"The gap between scientists ... and musicians isn't really that large," Mr. Rao says. "It's a conceptual chasm you have to be willing to leap across."

Mr. Steiger, 53, has been making artistic leaps and stretching boundaries his entire creative career. Born and raised in New York City, he says he embraced the disparate musical genres and styles the city had to offer, among them the avant-garde offerings of the New York Philharmonic conductor Pierre Boulez; the minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich; and the big-band jazz sounds of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis.

"I saw the musical scene as a big garden, and I didn't want to associate myself with one plant," he says. "It took a long time to reconcile all those influences."

Like so many teenagers in the 1970s, Mr. Steiger spent some time in a rock band—called the Basement Blues—playing drums and singing. Thomas G. Zimmerman, a guitarist in the band, remembers that his friend used to play Beatles tunes on the piano at home and liked to discuss science and inventions.

Mr. Zimmerman, who is now a computer researcher for IBM, said Mr. Steiger had a much deeper interest in the then-emerging computer technology than did most of his other friends.

Mr. Steiger went to the High School of Music and Art in New York, a public alternative school for artistically gifted students, where he studied percussion and met the Pulitzer-Prize winning composer Jacob Druckman, the father of a classmate and one of several pioneers in electronic music with whom Mr. Steiger would eventually study or perform. 

After he earned a bachelor's degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 1980, Mr. Steiger moved to the West Coast. At the California Institute of the Arts, where he got a master's degree in 1982, one of his principal teachers was Morton Subotnick, a composer who in the 1960s helped to develop what is believed to be the world's first analog synthesizer.

Mr. Steiger says he has always been interested in computers and, partly out of necessity, learned to write code. "When I first got involved, the only way to [compose] computer music was to actually write programs," he says.

As technology has evolved, Mr. Steiger has continued to expand the use of electronics in his compositions, using digital systems to modify the sound and even the tuning of the acoustic instruments during performances. In 1997, he and two of his colleagues at San Diego, Miller Puckette and Vibeke Sorensen, developed a system in which the sounds of improvising musicians were used to interact with and control computer graphics, modifying the visual components with aural gestures.

Mr. Steiger has used similar technology in many of his compositions, including Ecosphere, composed in 2002 for an ensemble of winds and percussion. The electronics in that work, which was inspired by concerns about the effects of global climate change, are sometimes meant to obscure the distinction between what the acoustic instruments are playing and what is being modified by electronics.

Mr. Steiger says he plans to continue that kind of work at the institute, work that he compares to the kind of experimentation that composers have always done when advances in technology provided the opportunity to expand the musical palette.

"What I'm doing now is working with my assistants to develop new algorithms to process the sound of music in real time," he says. "It really is a research process."