UW DXARTS Director, JUAN PAMPIN: "It's art informed by technology."
JUAN PAMPIN is the director and a founding faculty member of the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media at the University of Washington in Seattle. First introduced to electronics and programming in high school, Pampin cultivated his passion for computer music at the Conservatoir National Superieur de Musique (National Superior Conservatory of Paris for Music) in France where he earned his Master’s of Arts in music composition. He later on attended Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) where he earned his doctorate in music composition. Pampin’s research revolves around music and sound, specifically the concepts of spatial audio and sculpting sound in large spaces. Other aspects of his research include signal processing, 3D audio, acoustics and psychoacoustics, as well as developing new techniques and software.
For someone who doesn’t know about your research, how would you explain what you do to them? Most of my research is related to music in some way or another. Some would call my work “sound art” because it’s not always presented in performance; Sometimes it’s presented in installations in museums. Most of the works I do have some spatial aspect that either use multiple musicians surrounding an audience or multiple speakers surrounding an audience to create a 3D immersive environment. There’s a lot of technical research that’s required for me to create these works in signal processing, 3D audio, acoustics, and more. There’s also a lot of software development and use of ultra sound to create audible sound. It’s art informed by technology.
What are some examples of technology that you’ve developed in your research? A good example would be the ultrasonic beam-forming system. I’ve worked on it for maybe more than five years and we now have multiple prototypes. This is a technology that allows us to create beams of sound in the same way that allows us to create beams of light. We’ve also created a system that attaches to the hardware, so you can move the beam somewhere in space without having to move it physically, using signal processing techniques. It’s all developed using SuperCollider which we use in our DXARTS classes. It has this particular acoustic characteristic where if you point it at something, say I point it at the door, you’ll hear the sound as if it’s coming from the door. It’s like how light reflects off of objects.
What was the thought-process behind creating the DXARTS program?When I got to the University of Washington I was a postdoc in the School of Music. Richard Karpen (another founder of the DXARTS program) and I both got our Ph.Ds from CCRMA at Stanford which served as a model for DXARTS. CCRMA is an independent center where people can do research on computers and technology to make new music. IRCAM, the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music in France, was another model. Richard and I wanted to create a center that focuses on interdisciplinary arts. A Ph.D in music was pretty common, but that wasn't the case for visual arts. When we created DXARTS back in 2001, we were the first Ph.D program in the country for doing applied arts. We also had the vision of pairing the degree with the same kind of funding that engineering students have. In the sciences you do your master's, then Ph.D, then postdoc, then you go to a lab. Looking at this, we wanted to model our center after what they do in STEM, but with applied art.
What is digital signal processing? Digital signal processing means that you can take a sound and do things to it. So, let’s say you have a recording of a piano. You can shift the pitch or change its timing by using digital techniques. We treat sound itself as a signal and use digital algorithms to transform it. It can be simple things like changing pitch or tempo, but it can also be more complex with granular synthesis or passing sound through filters that will make a sound play in different areas of space. We’re essentially processing sound digitally.
What’s your typical day like? Every day is different because I’m the director of DXARTS, so I have quite a lot of administrative work. Some days I might spend the whole day in meetings with faculty or deans. Some other days are more dedicated to research where I’m in the studio or lab working on a certain project. In that case I try to block several hours of one afternoon and I try to block out that space through the week so I can do research. That might consist of working with one of our scientists or engineers, or sometimes by myself. It could be that I’m working on installations, a piece, or 3D audio. Once a week I also I perform and play with some faculty in the school of music, it’s an improvisation group. I do electronics in that band. Performance is also a different kind of research. We recently performed for the earshot jazz festival and other jazz clubs.
What are your goals in your research? It depends on the phases of where I am in my work. The first step of research is building some tools and that could take several months to even a year. When the platform is ready, I then make the piece. It’s very similar to how an engineer might do research. You read papers, figure out how to do certain things, see what others have done, look at how to attack the problem, but in the end, it’s triggered by a create idea that I have. After a while you leave development mode and are fully in a creative mode. Maybe it’s working with musicians, writing score, improvising, working together to try new things, having meetings with performers, then distilling down to what the piece will be.