Story Next Door: Where music and technology groove together

Kevin Patton, an assistant professor of music and performance technologies at Oregon State University, poses with his sensor-augmented electric guitar that allows real-time control of effects based on motion.  Patton has been working on the concept for a decade and hopes to have a commercial version available by the start of 2014.  (Andy Cripe | Corvallis Gazette-Times)

Andy Cripe

If Kevin Patton’s office in a corner of Benton Hall on the Oregon State University campus seems a little cluttered — a guitar over here, an electronic doodad rigged up by a student for a class over there, a laptop humming away on the desk — there’s good reason.

This is what it looks like at the busy intersection of music and technology, and that’s home territory for Patton, who is an assistant professor of music and performance technologies at OSU’s School of Arts and Communication.

In the midst of preparing to play a concert in Seattle last week, Patton talked about his work and passions — and the electric guitar in the office is a good place to start.

It’s a device he’s been working on for a decade, the TaurEx, a sensor extension for the electric guitar which tracks the guitarist’s motion and gestures in order to provide real-time control of computer effects and sampling. (He recently earned a grant from an OSU venture capital fund to develop the guitar into a marketable prototype.)

So, for example, the guitarist could program the device to trigger any number of musical effects as he lifts the guitar. Dipping the ax could trigger a different set of effects or samples.

It’s a logical project for Patton, who earned a degree in guitar from the University of North Texas in 2002.

But that wasn’t Patton’s first major.

“My very first major was physics,” he said. “I’ve always been a little bit of a nerd.”

And combining that love with a love for music — and a passion for musicians who have carved out their own paths — led, more or less, to his current posting at OSU.

OSU’s School of Arts and Communication was looking for someone with experience in interactive multimedia. Patton thought the job might be a good fit — and it added to the appeal that OSU was reorganizing its arts and communication school and that the Music Department is underneath that umbrella.

“I address all of them,” he said — arts, communication and music.

OSU also wanted someone with some visual arts experience — in part, to add some visual pizazz to its musical productions. So, for example, Patton worked on the visuals for the recent production of “The Magic Flute” at the Majestic Theatre.

Next up: Working with his spouse, visual artist Maria del Carmen Montoya, and cinematographer Jonathan Jindra to provide visuals for an appearance by OSU choirs in May at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center in New York City.

The visual work offers the same sort of opportunity to blend technology and arts; for example, Patton and his collaborators might use computer programming to listen to cues from the musicians to trigger certain sorts of visual effects. “It’s very much a parallel to some of my scholarly work,” he said.

And there’s a certain ethos that underlies all of his work: “It’s just cool to mess with gear, taking stuff apart and making it do stuff I want to do. Failure is common. Dead ends are just another right turn. You just keep plugging away.”

It’s the same ethos Patton tries to instill in his students.

“We try to combine this kind of practical hands-on learning with the core music education,” he said, “with a rigorous scientific underpinning of sound and technology.”

There’s a future for students with the ability to mix and match the arts with technology.

“If you can only do things that a machine can do,” your job prospects might be limited, he said. But “If you can think of ways that you can combine different types of technologies and media, you’ll be very useful.”

“My position here is a great example of this,” he said. “The lines between the actual disciplines are blurring fast. … The concept of this merging of arts and sciences is really exciting for everyone. The future is really bright for creative music here at OSU.”

Kevin Patton

Age: 40

Occupation: Assistant professor of music and performance technologies, Oregon State University

Family: Spouse, Maria del Carmen Montoya, a new media artist. And a son, Cuauhtémoc Patton, who’s 2½.

Fun fact about Cuauhtémoc: Forget about “The Wheels on the Bus” and other kiddie fare; Patton reports that his son is a fan of heavy metal music and, more recently, mariachi.

Influences: As you might expect, Patton cops to a wide array of influences on his music and technology work. Performance artist and composer Laurie Anderson, an early resident at the intersection of music and technology, is a key influence. Guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who was always pushing the boundaries of the electric guitar, is another. Patton also admires the do-it-yourself ethos of 1980s-era punk rock — but also has a soft spot for traditional Irish music; his parents hosted a radio show, “Irish Aires,” in the 1980s.

Surprises you’ll find on his iPod: Patton recently added music by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Hank Williams Sr.

For more: To get a better idea of what Patton is trying to do with his TaurEx, a sensor extension for the electric guitar, check out a video on his website where he plays “You Are My Sunshine.” Here’s the link:


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