Research at Boston University

Audio Magic

By Nathan Welton

At first, Joshua Fineberg’s newest piece, La Quintina, sounds like any other string quartet. Then, out of nowhere comes a fifth instrument that’s impossible to identify. The hauntingly surreal notes appear and disappear; they don’t belong at all, yet they are completely natural, with perfect timing and tune.

This is the mystery of Fineberg’s aural magic. The associate professor of music has composed a string quartet piece where sounds combine to create a fifth instrument out of thin air. It’s so hard to play that the Arditti Quartet, one of the world’s best, rehearsed for days—instead of their usual hours—to get it right. But when they did, it was the audio version of a rabbit pulled from a hat.

A short clip of La Quintina, performed by the Arditti Quartet at the Ultraschall 2013 festival. Recorded by Deutschlandradio Kultur, with live electronics by the ExperimentalStudio and IRCAM. Courtesy of Joshua Fineberg
“I’m obsessed with this idea of creating sound and musical situations where things are not exactly real or unreal—where there’s this ambiguity,” Fineberg says. “I love situations where you’re being played with and you’re aware you’re being played with. It’s like watching a great magician: you know that what you’re watching can’t be what it appears to be.”

Fineberg found his inspiration for La Quintina from a centuries‐old vocal repertoire in Sardinia. There, in ancient churches, four vocalists huddle around each other in a circle, listening to each other sing. They modulate their voices in such a specific way that the sounds bounce off cathedral walls and recombine to create the effect of a fifth voice that they consider to represent the Virgin Mary.

“Their voices go out into these reverberant churches and become this magical thing for everyone else,” Fineberg says. “There’s a dichotomy of this intimate thing they’re doing and this magical public thing they’re making.”

Fineberg wanted to create his own version for a string quartet, and for that he would need four virtuosos, an incredibly precise score, and a lot of technology. This final element was provided by EXPERIMENTALSTUDIO in Freiburg, Germany, which commissioned the piece, and the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris, where Fineberg worked for seven years before moving into academia. These are two of the leading music technology studios in the world and this project was their first-ever collaboration.

To perform La Quintina, four musicians sit in an X-shape, facing each other, with mutes dampening their instruments so that only they can hear what they’re playing. Computers capture the sounds they produce, break them down to their base characteristics, and then reassemble the music in a specific way to create that fifth instrument. “The actual piece exists in an eight-channel speaker ring around the audience,” Fineberg says, “and it swirls around like the voices inside a church.”

To realize his vision, Fineberg and computer scientists at IRCAM used the technology they had developed for one of Fineberg’s earlier projects, a multimedia dramatization of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. They created a program that would deconstruct a human voice into two parts: the source (the sound that is emitted directly from the vocal chords) and the filter (the modifications that the body, the mouth, and the sinus cavities make to those sounds). Once he had the voices of multiple people, he could mix and match them to create new singing that was real yet mysteriously artificial.

“I want to create an artistic experience that shouldn’t be possible,” Fineberg says.

For La Quintina, the software can likewise break down an instrument into a source and a filter, which makes sense considering that the violin also has a sound-producing string and a body. So the buzzing sound made as the musician bows a string is actually the violin’s voice. The filter—its mouth, if you will—is the violin’s wooden body. And different shapes and sizes and woods create entirely different sound colors.

While Fineberg chose a career in music, both of his parents were medical researchers and his scientific upbringing was not lost. After completing his undergraduate degree, he went on to study and collaborate on research in music technology and psychoacoustics at IRCAM, surrounded by scientists, before beginning his own creative and research projects.

“I was fortunate in that I was the only composer around at the time who could both speak the language of classical musicians and of scientists,” Fineberg says. “I could talk to the composers and see the steps that the software needed to take.” Thanks to his diverse background, he could take those needs and describe them in ways the scientists could understand.

“I’m really interested in that interface between artistic ideas and cutting-edge insight into mind and technology,” he says. “There are these moments where there are perfect intersections between art and science.”

La Quintina will be performed at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston on March 23, 2014.

Other Stories That May Interest You

What We Look For

Raising questions about what and how we see when we visit museums and galleries.

Dead Man Walking

Robert Pinsky translates an 18th century German play for modern American audiences.

A Literary Life in Letters

Exploring the life of Thomas Moore, in his own words.

Ancient Interpretations

Deeana Klepper tracks the cultural intersections between Christians and Jews in medieval Europe.