Disney’s latest incarnation of the beloved Winnie-the-Pooh franchise — “Christopher Robin” — hit theaters earlier this month. Its whimsical soundtrack, composed by Richard Sherman, Jon Brion and Geoff Zanelli, helps set the mood for the story of a grown-up Christopher Robin who has moved from Hundred Acre Wood into the business world. To add an ethereal feel throughout the score, Brion employed a magnetic resonator piano — an instrument created in Drexel’s Music Entertainment Lab that uses electromagnets to modify the sounds of a piano.
Since its invention, in 2010 by Andrew McPherson, a doctoral student in Professor Youngmoo Kim’s MET Lab in the College of Engineering, “the MRP,” has taken a prominent role in Kim’s work at the Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies (ExCITe) Center — connecting with students and researchers from across the region who are developing the next generation of musical technology.
McPherson has continued to develop the MRP technology to make it more portable and adaptable for all types of pianos. His work has taken him to Queen Mary University in London, where he’s collaborated with a variety of composers and performers to build a repertoire for the instrument. To date, there are more than 25 pieces written for the MRP. It has been used by the London Chamber Orchestra and the Opera Theater of Rome, and was featured by the band These New Puritans and the recording artist Xenia Pestova.
Brion, a renowned Hollywood composer, spotted the MRP via a series of online videos and had followed its progress over the years before connecting with McPherson to give his invention its cinematic debut.
The success of the MRP is a mainstream moment that will continue to inspire the innovators at the ExCITe Center, according to Kim. As an enabler of McPherson’s creative expression, Kim sees the same promise in a number of projects and the next generation of musical technology pioneers at the Center. He recently weighed in on the latest success of the MRP and the progress of musical technology research as a driver of science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) education at Drexel.
It seems that the magnetic resonator piano, which was created at Drexel almost a decade ago, has been steadily working its way into the mainstream – and it’s now being featured in the soundtrack of a Disney movie. How has the instrument evolved since its time at Drexel?
The magnetic resonator piano remains fundamentally the same. There have been some relatively minor tweaks, but mostly it’s just had more time to gain wider exposure. In addition to events at the ExCITe Center where we’ve featured the piano, Andrew McPherson, who developed the instrument as a post-doctoral researcher at Drexel, continues to use the MRP in his research lab at Queen Mary, University of London.
Do you think the MPR benefitted from being an innovation to a well-known instrument as opposed to an entirely new music-making device?
Absolutely, the MRP benefits from the history and familiarity of the piano. Although new music technologies are developed on a daily basis, most are used in performance only by the person or group who invented it, due to the learning curve required.
Both Andrew and I strongly believe in developing systems that build upon existing performance practice. Instruments like the piano have been refined over centuries for musical expression. The MRP takes that historical foundation and further extends the piano’s musical palette.
At the ExCITe Center’s Summer Music Technology program, which you’ve been running for more than a decade now, students are encouraged to experiment with instrument and music making, how have you seen this process of musical creativity change over the years?
I think there’s now widespread acceptance of the prominent role technology plays in music making and listening — 10 years ago, there was no Spotify or music streaming industry, so technology wasn’t necessarily at the front of people’s minds when thinking about music.
The greatest impact of technology has been in music production and distribution, which happens inside computers and devices, making it somewhat opaque to most people. I think we’re just scratching the surface of how computing enables new acoustic instruments —not just digital synthesizers, which require speakers.
Having a real, physical instrument also makes it clearer to audiences what a performer is doing. Projects like the MRP serve as inspiration for our students, showing how we can blend the digital and physical worlds in creating music.
What are some of the exciting new instruments being developed at ExCITe that might be on a similar path as the MRP?
A recent musical creation is Drumhenge. It’s a circle of 16 drums driven by magnets, turning each one into an independent sound synthesizer. Developed by doctoral student Jeff Gregorio and Peter English, an ExCITe artist in residence, the drums are wirelessly networked, enabling unique sounds, patterns and effects. It’s a new example of the “internet of musical things.” We premiered Drumhenge at concerts last year and it received a Philly Geek Award for “maker project of the year” and a best paper award at Audio Mostly, a scientific conference for music technology.
How does a moment like this, with the MRP getting its time in the spotlight, support and reinforce the mission of the Music Entertainment Technology Lab and the ExCITe Center?
The MRP premiere at a recital at Drexel in 2011 was attended by dozens of people, but I’m guessing a few more will see this film. But seriously, we are thrilled that the instrument is featured in the soundtrack of a major motion picture. It reinforces our core belief that art and technology are symbiotic, and they work in concert to advance innovation.
That ideal drives everything we do at ExCITe, in all areas of research — smart fabrics, video game development, entertainment technology, “maker” education and more — as well as in our STEAM outreach programs. I think the MRP is a great example of the unlimited potential of ExCITe’s transdisciplinary approach.
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