Journal Archive > 2002 > April

Music moves

Composing music with every move she makes

Here is Prof. Tomie Hahn as Pikapika, a character based on Japanese art forms and comics. She wears a gold, form-fitting suit and a blue wig that cascades down her shoulders, the bangs hanging low over her forehead. Pikapika, which means "twinkling," enters the auditorium from the rear and makes her way to the stage bathed in purple, red, green and blue lights, her every movement creating loud, electronic sound that fills the hall.

Here is Hahn, assistant professor of music, in her office at Tufts. Students studying ethnomusicology meet with her to discuss fieldwork projects; biracial students, not necessarily taking her classes, seek her out to discuss issues of identity.

Tomie Hahn performs as Pikapika, a character she created based on Japanese art forms.

And here is Hahn, dressed in a Japanese robe, her own hair streaming down her back, performing a work called "Streams," in which she blends the subtle hand gestures of traditional Japanese dance with electronic music.

Marriage of dance, music and technology
Hahn's upbringing as the daughter of a German-American father and a Japanese-American mother and her work as scholar, dancer and musician spill into each other, making it difficult to separate one part from the other. In the same way, her approach to music, dance and culture is one that blurs the lines between them.

"When I am moving," she has written of her performances, "dance and music become intertwined. I am unsure whether I am dancing the music or whether the music is creating the dance."

Hahn, in fact, creates her own music as she dances in her improvised performances thanks to technology developed by her husband, Curtis Bahn, a composer and professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, whose field is interactive electronic music performance. Bahn began experimenting with computers by attaching sensors and microcomputers to his acoustic bass. By tilting the instrument from side to side, he produces electronic sounds that change with each movement.

"We started thinking," recalled Hahn, "if the sensors are so good at collecting information, what would happen if we put them on my body while I'm dancing?"

The sound of gestures
The couples' first piece, called "Streams," was produced about five years ago. In this performance, Hahn wears gloves with little boxes holding the sensors that sense the position of her hands. Each movement of her hands creates or alters sound. The computer is sensitive to the slightest movement of her fingers and hands, all movements rooted in traditional and experimental Japanese dance. A more recent performance involves the character Pikapika, also based on Japanese dance forms. Last year, The New York Times featured Hahn as Pikapika on the cover of its Circuits section in an article about technology and culture. Since then, the work of Hahn and her husband have been featured in the magazine Artbyte, The Boston Herald and in newspapers and web sites from Germany, Israel and Italy. The couple, along with other collaborators, perform frequently. Their next performance will be on April 15 at the Flea Theater in New York City for the Electronic Music Foundation Concert Series.

For Pikapika, Bahn has designed a wearable, wireless, sensor-based performance instrument that captures Hahn's movements and broadcasts them to a computer music system, which then radios sound back to small speakers mounted directly on her body.

In performing the piece called "Streams," each time Tomie Hahn moves her hands, it creates or alters sound.

"In all of our dance pieces," the couple has written, "the dancer is in complete control of all aspects of sound choice…It is important to us that the human lead the technology. In Asia, and in Tomie's background, dance and music are not considered separate entities. In the West, this view is not always true. Technology has allowed us to unite them in a dynamic and powerful fashion."

Hahn spent part of her childhood in Japan, where she began studying traditional dance at age 4. In 1989, she earned the professional stage title Samie Tachibana after passing a series of tests. She has written a book that discusses how the body learns through the senses, tentatively called Sensational Knowledge: Learning Japanese Dance, and currently under consideration for publication.

The essence of culture
"I'm fascinated with how we learn through the body," she said. "In most dance, there's little notation, so it is learned by being passed down physically. It's not the same as musical notation where you can hand someone music and say, 'Come back next week and play Mozart.' "

She said her husband is extremely sensitive to how technology can allow the essence of culture to come through. "He sees that I spend hours using my hands very subtly and expressively in Japanese dance; it's the art of a single finger moving. So the computer programs he writes enable changes in sound at the tweak of a hand." At this, Hahn gracefully shifts her hand position ever so slightly.

"I can capture the sound and change the pitch through gestures. I can change it from the sound bzoo to bzoo skitch skitch. We are able to integrate music, dance and embodied cultural knowledge. The technology is not separate; it all comes together in one medium. New technologies have changed the nature of collaboration. While Curtis is the composer, he has created an environment that allows me full freedom and control when I am performing. Lines of disciplines and of designation of who is doing what have blurred."

Hahn said the performance pieces allow her to express her biracial and bicultural identity. She came to Tufts in 1998 and has discovered there are many students on campus who knock on her office door, eager to discuss their feelings about being from two different races and two different cultures. "They need people to talk to," she said. "It's important for all of us to understand the nature of our multiple identities."