• "Zap!" composer Christine Southworth (S.B. 2002) poses with the Van de Graaff generator that provides static and flashing lights for her musical composition. "Zap!" is a seven-part piece featuring the former atom-smasher in concert with flutes, guitar, cello, bass, piano, robots and human voices.

    Photo / Evan Ziporyn

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  • The Van de Graaff generator is the largest of its kind and can produce up to 1.5 million volts of electricity. In Southworth's composition, zaps from the generator will be triggered by humans; voltage will be controlled by a "termenova," a musical sensing device.

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Southworth makes music outside the rules

MIT alumna Christine Southworth's latest composition for generator, robots, instruments and voices features some high-voltage star-power -- the 40-foot-tall Van de Graaff (VDG) generator at the Museum of Science in Boston.

Southworth, who graduated from MIT in 2002 in mathematics with a minor in music, incorporates the flashing lights and static from the popular de Graaff generator along with robotic instruments and live performers in her new piece, "Zap! Music for Van de Graaff Generator, Robots, Instruments and Voices."

"Zap!" will premiere on Friday, Feb. 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum of Science's (MOS) Theater of Electricity.

The de Graaff is the largest of its kind in the world and is capable of producing up to 1.5 million volts of electricity

Like Southworth, the generator, is, in a sense, also an alumnus of MIT. Designed and built at MIT in the 1930s by MIT Professor Robert J. Van de Graaff, the generator was originally used as a research tool in early atom smashing and high-energy X-ray experiments. MIT gave the generator to the Museum of Science (MOS) in 1956, where it is now used in daily demonstrations of lightning and electricity.

"Zap!" is an offshoot of a project started by Southworth and Leila Hasan (M.Eng. and S.B. Electrical Engineering 2001), called Ensemble Robot, a small collection of robotic musicians who produce both simple and complex patterns of sound from acoustic sources including strings, pipes, drums and wooden keys. "Zap!" will include at least three of these robots but "not all the robots are happy playing in proximity to the high voltage," Hasan said.

Southworth and Alexandra Andersson (S.B. Electrical Science and Engineeering & S.M. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science 2003) will be responsible for triggering various "zaps" from the generator and its surrounding Tesla coils. At the same time, Hasan will control variations in voltage using her MIT thesis project: a musical interface/sensing device, inspired by the Theremin, that she calls a "termenova."

Human musicians rounding out the cast are Ramon Castillo (conductor/music director), Akili Haynes (percussion/voice), Blake Newman (bass), Erik Nugent (Lyricon/voice), Sachi Sato (keyboard), Mei-mi Lan (keyboard), Christine Southworth (voice), Rebecca Zook (cello) and Jeff Lieberman (guitar/keyboard), an MIT alum (S.B. Mathematics and Physics 2000, S.M. Mechanical Engineering) currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Media Arts and Sciences.

Other contributors to the project include Mike Mayo (sound design), Yu-cheng Hsu and Giles Hall (programming) and MIT alums Luke Phelan (S.B. Humanities 2002--documentation) and Kevin McCormick (S.B. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science 1999--lighting design).

Southworth is currently pursuing a master's degree in Computer Music and Multimedia Composition at Brown University and continues studies in composition with Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music Evan Ziporyn, with whom she has also edited and mixed two records. She has received awards and fellowships from the American Composers Forum, The Ernest Bloch Music Festival, Bang on a Can Summer Institute of Music and the MIT Eloranta Fellowship. A member of MIT's Gamelan Galak Tika, she also teaches electronic and Balinese music composition to children and adults in Cambridge and Boston.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 2, 2005 (download PDF).

Topics: Alumni/ae, Arts


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