SPARKED: Steven Kemper, Professor of Music Technology

Mason Gross School artists discuss the elements that fuel their work


Many of my projects are collaborations with composers, performers, dancers, artists, and technologists. The highlights of collaborative projects are the creative results that emerge, reflecting each contributor’s unique voice.


Playing an acoustic instrument, there is a one-to-one relationship between a physical gesture and sound production. For example, plucking an open guitar string will produce a specific pitch, and fretting that string will produce a higher pitch. Computer-generated music can obscure this relationship, as computers don’t need input to make sound. Using sensors and robots, we can bridge the physical and virtual worlds of sound, collecting data from actions in the physical world and mapping them to music in a variety of ways.


Myths are collective expressions of human imagination. They can be serious, fantastical, or profane, but typically touch upon themes of the utmost importance to human existence, such as where we came from, and how we should act. Myths also typically occur in a timeless past—it is this pre-historical time that I often attempt to evoke in my own music.  


My creative process typically consists of playing with an idea or technology and seeing what crystallizes from that experience. I don’t often know what a piece of music will sound like until I have tried many different approaches.


Learning how to “Do It Yourself” is empowering. Designing circuits, programming, building, and soldering are skills anyone can pick up. Understanding how to hack and build reveals how technology works at a deep level. This knowledge is useful for both practical purposes (building and fixing things) as well as looking critically at the role of technology in society.


Stars are permanent fixtures in the night sky. The stars that I can see are the same ones seen by all humans who have ever lived in the Northern Hemisphere. When I look at stars I feel connected to the generations who have lived before me.


The paintings of Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning, and Richter have been extremely important to me. Their work has shown me how basic elements of art—color, texture, and shape--can be beautiful without reference to figure or narrative. These ideas translate easily into the realm of music, which is inherently abstract.


The enthusiasm and imagination of my students is a constant source of inspiration. Though I may have listened to a piece of music hundreds of times, my students will always find interpretations that are new to me. Helping students work on a new composition or develop a new technology enables me to continually reexamine my own process.

Posted April 2015

To learn more about Steven Kemper, click here.