(Video notes: Alexandria Fusriboon, Anthony Crespo, Nina Zhang and Monica Estrella of the Cal Poly Pomona MIDI Ensemble perform Assistant Professor Nick Vasallo’s “Thalassophobia.” The video was shot and edited by alumnus Gabriel Zuniga. The audio was recorded by student HongJin Kim.)
If you love technology and music, the Cal Poly Pomona MIDI Ensemble just might be for you.
For the uninitiated, MIDI stands for Music Instrument Digital Interface. It is essentially a digital language that allows electronic devices to talk with one another, says Jennifer Amaya, an assistant professor of music and the ensemble’s director.
“When a student strikes a key to produce a note on a traditional MIDI keyboard, a digital signal gets sent to a sound generator that produces a sound,” Amaya says. “The MIDI message itself is a digital code that describes the pitch of the note, the duration of the note, and how hard the note was struck.”
In other words, it’s the music of computers, and chances are you’ve heard it in video games, movies, songs and ringtones for early cellphones.
The 15-member MIDI Ensemble will showcase its talents during its spring quarter concert at 8 p.m., Wednesday, June 4, in the Music Recital Hall. The diverse program will feature music from Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade, Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” the theme from “Schindler’s List,” Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and other works. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online.
Cal Poly Pomona is one of the few universities to have a MIDI group.
“The two most difficult things about hosting an ensemble like this are acquiring and maintaining the equipment, and then finding music to give to players,” Amaya says. “There is no ‘standard’ MIDI ensemble, and there are no people writing music for MIDI ensembles, so a director cannot purchase music and hand it out to have it played. To do what we do at our concerts, I probably spend an average of 10 hours arranging each tune.”
In addition to keyboards, other instruments that use MIDI are electronic drum sets; xylophone-like malletKATs; and electronic wind instruments or EWI, which look like clarinets but can sound like everything from a saxophone to a violin.
The Cal Poly Pomona ensemble was created in fall 2002 by Music Professor Emeritus David Grasmick, who was inspired by another university’s MIDI ensemble.
“It was created so students could use digital technology to create music they composed or arranged in any number of styles — pop, rock, classical or jazz,” Grasmick says. “Students learn so much using MIDI. They can be a member of any type of ensemble and become any instrument needed so they gain the experience playing that instrument and the musical issues involved, like range, articulation and timbre.”
The ensemble is one of the music department’s upper-division groups, although non-music majors can participate, Amaya says. Auditions are required to earn a spot, in part because the group has a limited number of instruments.
MIDI was created in the early 1980s. Dave Smith, who spoke on campus on May 12, was the pioneer in synthesizer technology and is considered the “father of MIDI.”
It was very popular until pop music moved into other directions in the early 1990s, Amaya says. But the technology is still in use today everywhere, particularly by composers of music for films and video games.
“Every personal computer is a MIDI device that can play MIDI files and handle MIDI data. Every personal cell phone is a MIDI device that can play and interpret MIDI data,” Amaya says. “In fact, when cell phones first came out, those ringtones were all MIDI ringtones.”
“DJs are using MIDI technology all of the time now as well. MIDI not only can control sound and music, it is also capable of controlling lighting and other parameters.”