by KATHARINE SCHWAB
Josh Coronado does not consider himself a musician. He doesn’t like to think of himself as an artist either. “I didn’t like art or the idea of art for the longest time. It can be parodied—being weird just to be weird,” Coronado said. “It wasn’t until I found an emotional connection that I got interested.”
Computer music is a recent development for Coronado, an undergrad Biology major and a coterm in Music, Science, and Technology, but he has a long history with music. Coronado played the Tahitian drums for 18 years because it was a way to connect to his mother’s culture and pass the time during his sister’s hula dance practices. He ended up forming his own dance and music group in high school that opened for Jimmy Buffett. However, Coronado doesn’t consider the drumming and dancing he has known his entire life an art form. “I’ve performed at one too many touristy luaus,” he said with a laugh.
Coronado stopped playing Tahitian drums when he got to Stanford. However, music reentered his life when he took a class fall quarter at the Knoll, home to the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA, pronounced ‘karma’).
After spending a year taking classes and recording music in this Spanish Gothic fortress atop a hill near Lake Lag, Coronado is clearly at home, leading me up and down winding staircases and casually mentioning the place’s eccentricities. “This is the Max lab,” he said of one space where students, researchers, and professors can make their own musical instruments in order to create experimental sound. “It’s named for Max. No one knows his last name.”
The Knoll was built to be the home of Stanford President Ray Lyman Wilbur in 1915, but the Music Department moved in in 1946. In 1986, CCRMA took over, and research at the intersection between engineering, computer science, and music found a home.
After undergoing renovations in 2004 and 2005, The Knoll is now equipped with state of the art recording studios, performance spaces, classrooms, offices, and one of the best kept secrets on the Stanford campus: the listening room. The carpeted walls muffle any extraneous sound and tables cluttered with cables, computers, and other equipment line the edges of the room. Down a few steps in the center of the room, a stool sits atop a metal grate. There are speakers (22 in all) positioned below the grate, suspended from the ceiling, and on all sides of the stool in order to immerse the listener in sound.
As we sat in the listening room, Coronado instructed me to sit on the stool. “I’m going to turn off the lights,” he said. “It creates the best listening experience.” I was about to hear “Shapes,” a code piece he wrote fall quarter.
Code music is, quite literally, music made from lines of code. As opposed to musical notes on a staff, code music is composed by telling a computer when and how to play different sample sounds. “Shapes,” about three minutes long, was an artistic rendering of these sounds and pulse waves.
It felt like I was submerged in sound—pulsating, electronic, insistent sound that I could feel moving around me as it transitioned between speakers. In the darkness the slow sirens circled me. The bass sounded like a heartbeat, and the music sounded as if it were coming from inside my head. When asked about where the piece came from, Coronado’s assertion, “I just went with what I heard,” made perfect sense. It had an emotional, visceral clarity, a delight in the pure aesthetics of sound, and a desire for experimentation. And all this with a few lines of computer code.
Coronado’s next project is composing six different pieces that explore his experience with Tahitian drumming practices and contemplate the question, “What does a drummer mean without a dancer? One piece, “Tahiti,” is finished. Coronado has ideas for several more, not all of which will be composed on a computer.
Upon listening to “Tahiti,” it is clear that his drumming background has influenced his computer composition. The rhythms in both “Tahiti” and “Shapes” reference the sonic interactions and structures of Tahitian drumming as well as his interest in electronic dance music.
After finishing his coterm, Coronado hopes to make a living at composition and pursue music full time.
“Compositions are thoughts and emotions I’ve had the chance to think all the way through,” he said.