Daren Keck (left) created his own electronic musical instrument under the guidance of Shawn Trail (right), director of performance and technology in the Department of Music.

A chance encounter set Oregon State University computer science student, Daren Keck, on a path to create an electronic musical instrument that indulged his interests in choral and minimalist music.

Although he started playing music on piano at a very young age, his passion for music was inspired by creating songs on a computer as he was growing up in Florence, Oregon. He continued to study music at the University of Washington where he received his bachelor’s in digital and experimental arts. At Oregon State his computer science studies are focused on game design, which he plans to combine with his musical interests.

But it was his job at the Mac Store that opened the door to designing and building his own musical instrument. Shawn Trail, director of performance and technology in the Department of Music, came into the store as a customer and their conversation turned to Trail’s course in physical music computing.

Keck saw the class as an opportunity to expand his computer science skills into the realm of music. “It really fit all my interests, and the breadth of the class he was describing sounded pretty exciting to me,” Keck said.

For the final class project, Keck combined his knowledge in music theory and computer science to create a one-of-a-kind instrument that was specific to the type of music he loves to listen to and compose.

“I’m pretty obsessed with choir music. The clarity of voice makes it easier to hear chord progressions, and I wanted a way to randomly generate chords using voice,” he said.

Daren Keck video

 Using samples of single notes from recordings of “Anonymous 4” singing from a 14th century songbook, Keck created a program that could randomly select the notes, and the duration each note would play. 

By varying the note duration, he employed a minimalism composition technique called phasing, in which notes gradually become offset from each other. “Over time the pattern between the notes is always changing, but the lines themselves stay the same. And it’s very meditative for me to listen to that type of music,” Keck said.

One concern for Keck was how the experience of performing electronic music would play out in front of a live audience. With that in mind, he created a device on which he could control the rate at which his program generated new notes, the range of notes it could sample from, and the number of voices playing at a time. His thought was it would be more engaging for the audience because he is composing in the moment with the same element of risk that any musical performer faces.

Trail invited Keck to perform live at a concert of Oregon State faculty and students playing new works last April called “Spatial Shifting.” For the performance, Keck added abstract digital art created by Trail that played behind him, and a stereo panning feature that gave the audience a sense of the sound moving about the room.

“I was able to focus on and interact with the device as an instrument, and it felt very natural. That performance turned out to be the best composition so far,” he said.

For Trail the importance is not the instrument itself, but the knowledge students gain to be able to develop other instruments in the future. “It’s realizing that you can be your own designer and your own engineer,” he said.

Keck continues to work with Trail on new projects to push the limits of music and performance innovation. This fall they worked with collaborators on a multi-media opera that included high-tech visual and sound effects, such as a moon and clouds that moved across a wall over the course of the performance.