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Virginia Tech professor awarded musical Guggenheim fellowship to combine computers, instruments

Virginia Tech professor awarded musical Guggenheim fellowship to combine computers, instruments

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BLACKSBURG — Eric Lyon makes music that surrounds you.

A Virginia Tech professor of creative technologies in music, Lyon is a leading creator of spatial music at the school. His primary instrument is the Cube, a $15 million facility in which Tech researchers use screens and speakers to explore augmented reality, data and immersive art.

He’ll be using the vast speaker arrays, plus acoustic instruments, to make new and innovative music thanks to a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in the coming year.

Lyon will be on research leave for the 2018-19 academic year, focused on creating musical pieces in the Cube, a black box theater at the Moss Arts Center. He received a grant of about $55,000 from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to make four pieces of music.

His research, like all Guggenheim research, poses a question.

“How do you compose music for a high density speaker array that combines acoustic and computerized sounds?” Lyon said is the question he has tasked himself with answering.

The Guggenheim Fellowship is highly competitive. About 3,000 people, mostly academics, applied for it and only 175 received the honor. Of those 175, about a dozen were involved in music composition like Lyon.

“You apply, then you cross your fingers,” Lyon said.

Lyon is the seventh Tech professor to be awarded the honor and the first for music composition.

He said it’s the third or fourth time he’s applied for a Guggenheim. He learned in February that he’d receive it, but wasn’t allowed to say anything about it publicly until April, which was “really a challenge,” he said.

In his application for the grant, Lyon wrote that he hopes the music will serve as an inspiration for musicians in a multitude of genres. It will demonstrate the value of loudspeaker arrays that are rare globally.

Lyon credits Virginia Tech’s Cube as a reason he received the grant. The facility and his experience with it were likely critical in making himself stand out. Ultimately, he has to speculate as to why he received the award because the Guggenheim Foundation gives little reasoning for their selections, he said.

The Cube will allow the acoustic musicians, and therefore his arrangements, to take different forms than they could in a traditional concert hall, Lyon said.

How sound reverberates through a venue never changes, but in the Cube computer music pumped out of the massive speaker arrays will change the sense of where echoes and noise are coming from.

“The space can be the most dynamic part of a performance instead of the most static,” Lyon said.

Specifically, he’s tasked with making four pieces of music involving the Cube and acoustic instruments.

One piece, “Marimbas Everywhere,” has already been performed in the space. He’s now working on the other three.

He’ll also look at ways to combine other instruments and horn calls that reverberate from speakers around the Cube for his Guggenheim pieces. The pieces might be able to be performed at other similar facilities around the world, but there aren’t many, he said.

Lyon hopes they can be performed for a public audience in Blacksburg next year. It’s all part of his goal of sharing music with the multitudes in ways that are new and creative, he said.

“I want to put as much music into the Cube as possible,” Lyon said.

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