Unexpected Artistic Endeavors at MIT Museum’s 150 Exhibition

Contrapuntist and I recently took a vacation to Boston. We spent most of our week checking out all of the usual tourist sites like Paul Revere’s house, the USS Constitution, and the New England Aquarium. On our last day, we ventured into Cambridge to explore the MIT Museum‘s 150 Exhibition commemorating the university’s 150th anniversary. I’m a musician, not a scientist, so I’d always thought of MIT as a cream-of-the-crop technology school with a lot of geniuses hunched over computers. I expected the exhibit to have lots of cool scientific gadgets, and it didn’t disappoint. But I was thoroughly surprised by the “Artistic MIT” portion which included architectural, visual art and musical contributions by the MIT students and faculty.

One exhibit featured an analog music synthesizer built by former MIT student Larry Stabile. Back in the 1960s, students were intrigued by electronic music makers, such as Robert Moog’s synthesizers. Many of the students chose to build a synthesizer or theremin, exemplifying their passion for engineering and the arts. The MIT community has continued to experiment with electronic music. More recently, MIT Media Lab Professor Joe Paradiso created a modular synthesizer, dubbed “Keyboard of the Month” by Keyboard Magazine in December 1996.

Another exhibit featured a 1965 recording of the MIT Band conducted by longtime director John Corley, in a performance of the Festival Symphony (Symphony No. 1), Op. 51. The work was composed by John Bavicchi, who studied engineering and management at MIT from 1940-1942 and later became a composition professor at the Berklee School of Music. Corley led the MIT band for 51 years. His passion for new music led him to regularly commission works from Bavicchi and other composers.

I was intrigued to discover that MIT’s Glass Lab courses have the longest waiting lists of any at MIT. Students, faculty, and artists collaborate on projects which use the ubiquitous and mysterious material. This exhibit includes four objects made in the Glass Lab. Contrapuntist and I particularly liked the glass oboe. Here’s a video of the lab:


A fun and interactive exhibit is Christopher Janney’s Soundstair (1978). The staircase consists of photoelectric sensors wired to a computer, sound sampler, amplifier, and speakers. As you go up or down the stairs, you activate a series of melodic and environmental sounds. Ascend the stairs and the sounds go up the musical scale; descend, and the sounds go down the scale. Contrapuntist and I had quite a lot of fun experimenting with the sounds by hopping up and down the stairs. Janney created Soundstair as part of his master’s thesis project when he was a graduate student at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. He went on to create temporary installations throughout the United States and Europe in locations including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Here’s a video of another one of Janney’s Soundstairs:

The exhibition runs through December 31, 2011. For more information, go to http://museum.mit.edu/150.

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3 comments on “Unexpected Artistic Endeavors at MIT Museum’s 150 Exhibition
  1. Since I love Techno, I think I would love to see the home-made Synthesizer, and I’m sure Joy Electric would make a pilgrimage to see it. (Ronnie Martin of J.E. only uses analog synths). Those musical stairs are cool, but they may get annoying if installed in a modern home.

    • Actually, if you read the blurb about the homemade synthesizer on the MIT page, it started out as analog and was converted to digital. But it is still cool to see. Also, about the stairs, one funny thing which I didn’t include in the post was that there was an elderly couple going down the stairs in front of us who seem to be totally oblivious to the sounds it was making. I don’t know how they missed it; Contrapuntist and I noticed right away. Anyhow, take a trip down to the museum if you have a chance. It’s so worth it!

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