Digital Music Ensemble

Director: Stephen Rush, professor, Department of Performing Arts Technology

Students from music, art, engineering and dance have made up the Digital Music Ensemble (DME) for the last 25 years. Students work to collaborate in the creation of new works, or perform innovative music/art works from the past, works largely ignored by mainstream academe. DME delves into the intricacies and problems of “Performance Art” or  “Telepresence/Telematic” performance (performance with other musicians via the Internet). Annually through 2016, DME created a project called Gypsy Pond Music,  a site-specific work taking place at the U-M School of Music Pond. The work often utilized advanced technologies to create a natural/un-natural landscape of sound and sight, all informed by deep study of comparative mythology involving the labyrinth. The series will resume in fall 2019.

DME has performed at neighboring institutions, festivals, and abroad, including performances in Berlin’s experimental cafe, the “Schmalzwald”, and exhibits at the Aurreale Festival in Baitz, Germany. It has achieved a remarkable reputation over the past 25 years and in 2001 the Ensemble and its director received the “Compuworld” (formerly Smithsonian) Award for Technological Innovation. DME has premiered works by composers Philip Glass, La Monte Young, and John Cage; created a DVD project with legendary composer Pauline Oliveros; and recorded a CD with avant-garde pianist/composer “Blue” Gene Tyranny (receiving excellent reviews in the Village Voice and Wire magazine). In addition, DME has collaborated in performance with such legends as Elliott Sharp and Robert Ashley.

Dr. Stephen Rush talks about the history of DME.

Digital Music Ensemble YouTube Playlist

In an unusual turn of events, DME was invited to perform in October 2018 in the Delaware Copper Mine, located in Delaware, MI, in the heart of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Director Stephen Rush visited the mine beforehand to do an “impulse response,” which means capturing the acoustical behavior of the performance space digitally. It could then be reproduced during rehearsals and eventually in a performance in Ann Arbor that “sounded” like the mine.

In addition to performing in a unique space, students learned from the project by reading about the economic and geologic history of Michigan. They also learned to use the “impulse response” plug-in that is included in one of the standard music programs, Logic, but which is rarely taught.

One emphasis of the project was the importance of space and place to the creation of music. Such site-specific performances are growing in importance in the arts, and are even the focus of grants and new faculty positions. In the Mines project, students learned not only to listen to their environment, but also to record and reproduce it digitally.

Equally important to the Mines project was the “cultural exchange” students experienced in traveling to a remote, rugged corner of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They spent four days living in yurts and interacting with local residents, geologists, historians, and even some of the few remaining Native Americans (Ojibwa) in the area.

What is Gypsy Pond? 

Gypsy Pond Music is an annual installation (through 2016) by the Digital Music Ensemble. Each fall, the class studied the meaning of labyrinths in various mythologies and religions. After each student created and discussed the meaning of their own labyrinth, the class decided on major themes that resonated such as meaning, choice, destiny, etc. With those themes in mind, the students set out to create a visual and sonic installation to be featured on the pond for a week. These projects have varied wildly throughout the years, featuring everything from very literal labyrinths, MIDI ducks, giant tetrahedrons, to bowls of fire. Below are a selection of videos, images, and explanations of Gypsy Pond throughout the years.

Gypsy Pond Music XVI

Gypsy Pond Music 2014 was called Tension Intention. Visually, it featured a large purple tetrahedron lit from within, with three yellow bands stretching out to the shore. Poetry was projected onto the pond at night. The bands were connected to tension sensors which influenced the mix and processing of layers of music created by a group of students within the class.

Gypsy Pond Hockey Music
In the winter of 2014, Digital Music Ensemble had a very unique opportunity to modify Gypsy Pond Music. In collaboration with a member of the Michigan Hockey team, they were able to use both the frozen music school pond and Yost Ice Hockey arena. They used miced skated, frozen hydrophones, and put on two very cool shows different than any Gypsy Pond Project before.

Gypsy Pond XV
Gypsy Pond 2013 featured heart rate sensors that corresponded to flashing lights on the pond. The music was affected by the heart rate sensors as well.