The Arts Council Sounds Off On… Ocarina

By Cindy Clair

I recently attended a Master’s Tea at Yale University’s Saybrook College featuring Ge Wang, an assistant professor at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. Ge has authored an audio computer programming language called ChucK and was a founder of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra and the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra. For his talk, he demonstrated several music apps he created for the iPhone. I was mesmerized by the ocarina, which transforms the mobile phone into a musical instrument, based on an ancient wind instrument. To play the iPhone ocarina, one blows into the end of the phone and pushes buttons on the screen to elicit beautiful tones. At $.99, it’s a bargain for an easy-to-play, totally transportable musical instrument. These days, I think a lot about technology and its impact on people, relationships, and community. As an arts professional, I worry about screens and microphones being poor substitutes for the live arts experience. I value the infectious laughter enjoyed with fellow theatergoers, and the kinship of humanity when listening to a soaring orchestral piece in the company of others.

So I was thrilled to hear Ge talk about his desire to use technology to reconnect people to music-making. He acknowledged that technology too often plays a role in distancing us from creative expression. Before the phonograph and the radio, families and friends gathered in living rooms to sing and play music together. With recorded sound, we became more passive, listening remotely to music made elsewhere. Ge commented on the disconnect that comes as kids grow into adults, becoming more self-conscious and inhibited. Too many of us decide, “I’m not a musician,” leaving the music-making to those more talented. Ge wants to change that, to encourage us to make music. He even offers us the opportunity to share our musical creations through a device on the app that records users’ tunes then launches them into cyberspace or cellular space for listeners around the globe to enjoy.

Cindy Clair is the Arts Council’s executive director.

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