Sonic music is thriving at Stanford.
Ge Wang, an assistant professor at Stanford University and CTO at Smule, lives and breathes sonic music.
When I recently interviewed him about his first experiences playing the guitar as a teenager, how he loves music and the “human possibilities” of technology, he convinced me he’s not a composer who embraces technology for its own sake.
Ge (pronounced Ga-eh) is a young guy with a computer science degree who loves creating and playing sonic music, likes the words “magic” and “magical,” especially when he refers to Apple’s iPad and sharing songs with others. Yet he believes both acoustic instruments and computers complement, not replace, each other. Sonic music is a means to an end.
Laptops & iPhones — the Latest Digital Instruments
That he chose laptops, iPhones and other devices to express himself isn’t important. As he says in our conversation, the old view of technology required learning about how things worked; the new way is “extending the human experience in the physical world by using technology.” He believes that technologies change quickly but people change more slowly.
In a musical sense, he says “…once you have a sound, you have it forever and make it interactive and expressive.” Sound is all about communicating things that nothing else can communicate.
The digital domain provides interactive ways to express sound and tunes in new ways. Whether in solo or collaborative mode, mobile devices are, to date, the most highly adopted digital devices, attracting a global audience of musical lovers who want to share their compositions.
Sonic Music and Mobile Phones
As Michael Becker mentioned in his MB podcast interview: “Mobile is the foundation of all communications going forward–whatever the mobile device, for personal use or commerce.” He speaks of the “untethered engagement” as the central focus of one-on-one relationship marketing with mobile phone consumers. Unlike earlier marketing, he denies the previous paradigm “if we build it, they will come.”
And so Wang at Princeton and later at Stanford, where he’s an Assistant Professor in the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, combines computers,and smartphones–most especially the iPhone. He explores playing compositions in ways not yet discovered, “endlessly trying things to make music satisfying in itself.”
He’s the chief-architect and co-creator of the ChucK audio programming language, and the founding director of the Stanford Laptop and Mobile Phone Orchestras.
Computers Help Create Sonic Music
In a preface to his dissertation, he writes:
“The computer has long been considered an extremely attractive tool for creating, manipulating, and analyzing sound. Its precision, possibilities for new timbres, and potential for fantastical automation make it a compelling platform for expression and experimentation – but only to the extent that we are able to express to the computer what to do, and how to do it.
To this end, the programming language has perhaps served as the most general, and yet most precise and intimate interface between humans and computers.”
As you watch and hear him playing sonic music by blowing into an iPhone with his mouth, while fingering four circles on the phone’s touch screen, you feel he could just as easily have chosen a flute rather than Ocarina, a software tool offered by Smule, co-founded with Jeff Smith, its CEO and also a classically-trained pianist.
Smule: Songs, Sheet and Ocarina Sonic Music
The Palo Alto, California company, where he acts as CTO, launched in June, 2008. It develops innovative musical and social apps for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch users.
Using Smule’s software, Apple device owners explore expressive, creative audio and sonic music, which can be shared with others. Smule’s bestselling apps include Magic Piano, Glee, I Am T-Pain, Leaf Trombone World Stage and Ocarina. Since the company launched its first product in September of 2008, users have downloaded over 5 million Smule products. The company’s I Am T-Pain application has grossed $2.5M in sales with nearly one million downloads, while Ocarina is used by over three million around the world.
Glee, a voice-focused app, offers an opportunity for anyone to create songs and share them with friends and strangers globally, while Magic Piano for the iPad is an easy-to-use tool for the iPad. Sonic Lighter creates a flame on an iPhone screen that’s shareable with others across the Web. Leaf Trombone World Stage is an an instrument, a game,and a huge global social experience. You blow into your iPhone, or use touch mode with the iPod Touch.
What’s curious about this Apple device-oriented company is its market reach beyond typical demographics for Apple’s products. In a video interview with Jeff Smith, vator.tv’s Bambi Francisco discussed how people of all generations find Smule’s software uniquely intriguing. In a video, Smith said “…the product is itself the marketing…marketing is all about our end users,” a strategy that extends the current “marketing is a conversation” to its limits.
Perhaps it’s the universal nature of songs, but I think more is going on here. Apple, better than any other computer or smartphone company, has somehow captured the imagination of countless millions with its products. Old, young, progressive, conservative–the typical marketing demographic breakdown of technology customers–continue purchasing the company’s products in good times and bad. Smule has somehow extended its influence with sonic music applications that offer a social component.
From his initial high school infatuation with computers, Wang declares a clear love creating sounds in unique ways, whether collaborating with other musicians or playing alone. In this podcast interview, he talks about his musical life, the Princeton and Stanford Laptop Orchestras, Ocarina on the iPhone, artificial reality, science fiction and more.
He says his purpose is to get people of all ages to use sonic music for personal expression whether on the iPad, iPhone or iTouch–musical experiences that are hard to duplicate on non-digital instruments. He believes Smule’s software apps provide social tools for collaboration and, in some apps like Sonic Lighter, a “core thread” that helps users connect with others–not in the Facebook or Twitter sense.
Globally, he relishes the notion of 40-50 million people engaging in sonic music sharing and newer apps, like Glee, that let people add their voices to a song, such as John Lennon’s “Imagine,” where 60 people, friends or total strangers, add their voices.
Finally, he shares his vision of the future when mobile and cloud computing merge and technology is completely about creation rather than adaptation. He looks forward to a “global community of musicians.”
Links for Further Information
Ge Wang TED Talk: The DIY Orchestra of the Future (6/14)
Clapping Machine Music Variations – Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PDF)
Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra
Stanford Laptop Orchestra Musical Macs
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