Dalton Harts was one of several students selected to travel with Berklee’s Interdisciplinary Arts Institute Ensemble to Salvador da Bahia, Brazil in July 2014. The trip included an exchange at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), where BIAI members collaborated with UFBA students and share their research in interdisciplinary production, modular synthesizer design, and interactive music apps, and culminated in a concert at the 3rd Bahia Biennale at the Goethe-Institut theater. Read more with our student blog posts from Brazil, view photos from the trip, or read the official press releases in English and Portuguese.

This summer I was fortunate enough to travel on behalf of the Berklee Interdisciplinary Arts Institute (BIAI) to Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, for a performance at the third Bahia Biennale as well as an exchange with the University Federal da Bahia (UFBA).  The Biennale is a 100-day art and culture festival that draws artists from 22 countries to create over 30 events and exhibitions across Salvador and the state of Bahia.  We worked closely with students of music and technology from the UFBA, lead by UFBA faculty Cristiano Figueiró. 

After arriving just in time to catch the final match of the World Cup on Sunday evening, Monday morning we spent getting acquainted with our team for the week. Besides being talented musicians, the students from UFBA were also involved in computer music development and research. We spent the afternoon exchanging our research in electronic production, modular synthesizer design, and interactive music apps.

Cristiano shared with us his work in android app development involving interactive music and synthesis. One app involved a system where the user draws lines across the screen, while the software generates musical lines based on the input. Another was a multi-track looper wherein audio loops can be recorded, synced, and remixed directly from the device. Both were impressive integrations of an open source visual programming language called Pure Data (Pd) into android systems. Using a similar approach, Cristiano’s student Bruno Rohde showed us some of his apps as well, including a loop-slicing app, which let the user manipulate and rearrange multiple audio loops in realtime through a playable interface.

Afterwards, we presented our work. Jason Lim spoke about his work in modular synthesizer design and manufacturing that he does with Qu-Bit Electronix, a company he recently launched with fellow BIAI alum Andrew Ikenberry. I spoke about a BIAI project that Jason and I worked on together in March, a 16-story interactive musical light installation on Berklee’s 160 Massachusetts Avenue tower.

By our third full day in Salvador, it was time for our performance at the Goethe Institut. The program was a concert of original music that we had created inspired by Walter Smetak, a Swiss-born musician, instrument builder, and artist who came to Brazil in 1937. Smetak was a fascinating character. A classically trained cellist and luthier, he is most known for his experimental instrument building.

We were fortunate enough to be staying only a couple blocks from the museum in Salvador’s historic Pelourinho district where Smetak’s collection resides. It was difficult looking at all of these fascinating instruments knowing that we couldn’t play them. Each one had a unique concept that mixed European training with his experimental nature. There were several instruments that looked like perfectly constructed cellos, only they had a second set of resonating strings beneath the fingerboard, similar to an Indian sitar. Another was a cylindrical resonator covered with strings, which rotated via a crank. As the crank is turned, a bow sits on top, exciting the strings as they rotate. There were dozens of flutes, single and double reed instruments, some with multiple resonators and fingerboards. Some instruments were playable by two or three players simultaneously. There were even a handful of paintings with strings pinned across them. We looked at them for some time before one of the attendants came over to pluck the strings for us; even his paintings were instruments.

Seeing Smetak’s work was an inspiring reminder of what is possible with instrument design. Today in electronic music, instrument and sound design in the digital domain offers such an expansive palette of possibilities. But what Smetak’s work proves is that there is in fact still so much to be explored in the physical domain of instrument design.

As best as we could, we tried to channel Smetak’s experimental nature into our performance. The concert was a collection of pieces made on instruments of our own design, software and hardware alike, with a blend of traditional instruments as well. We even got a chance to meet Smetak’s daughter Barbara Smetak who attended the concert. She gave us the honor of saying that were he alive, Smetak would have loved the BIAI/UFBA collaborative performance featuring our modern homemade hardware and software instruments used in experimental improvisation.

By the end of the week, the journey seemed like it was still just beginning. Apart from our time spent with the university, the time was full of fond memories. In the evenings we would walk and enjoy music in the streets while eating a tasty abará. Our hosts at the University arranged for us to geat a rare taste of Candomblé, a Yoruban religion with deep roots in West Africa and northeastern Brazil, when one day we visited a terreiro called Ilê Asé Opô Afonjá and witnessed an ancient ritual praising the Orixás (Gods). The city of Salvador and the people we met were, to me, unforgettable. By the end of it all, the biggest challenge of the whole week proved to be leaving this incredible place.