Non-semantic music composed by University professor featured in new iPad game

By Jacqui Ogrodnik

Players of the iPad game Blek may catch a few sounds they’re not used to hearing courtesy of Erin Gee, assistant professor of composition theory at the University.

While playing Blek, each swish and flick of the finger across the iPad’s screen creates a moving line that repeats the movement until it collects the colored circles, travels too long without contact with a circle or hits a black hole.

Whether the level is successfully completed or the line falls victim to a black hole, the player will hear a tiny excerpt from “Yamaguchi Mouthpiece I” composed and performed by Gee.

However, her music featured in Blek is unlike most music typically found in video games.

Rather than singing a series of words or even syllables, Gee uses her mouth to create a series of pops, clicks, hums and tunes — a style she described as “non-semantic, meaning they’re sounds that don’t have any semantic meaning, and they are just sung together in an organization that doesn’t have to do with linguistics or a language.”

Martin Brody, professor of music at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, worked with Gee in the spring of 2008 when they put on a concert together.

Brody said he was impressed immediately both by her composing talent and her originality.

“The music she’s been working on is a series of pieces that involve vocalization using what a singer does with her mouth, and in ways that creates a kind of anatomy of vocal sounds based on … individual speech sounds broken down, not combined into syllables or words,” Brody said.

He noted that her compositions are very much unlike any other music, and that is one of the things he finds exciting about her work.

“As I got to know her, I came to see that she was both a very hard working composer and an artist of great integrity, and it was really great to have that opportunity to work with her,” Brody said.

Stephen Taylor, associate professor of composition theory and conductor for the Illinois Modern Ensemble, had conducted a number of Gee’s compositions. One word Taylor used to describe Gee’s music was “identifiable.”

“When you hear it, you can tell it’s by her immediately,” he said. “It’s strange to listen to, but it’s also instantly attractive.”

Taylor said Gee’s pieces are old-fashioned in that they often have repeating sections, similar to pieces written by Johann Sebastian Bach or Ludwig van Beethoven.

“It’s interesting because to the listener the sounds coming at you are so different all the time — that you don’t even realize it got repeated,” he said.

Blek, which has recently been made available for the iPhone and iPod Touch in addition to its iPad version, was created by brothers Davor and Denis Mikan. In an email, Denis said the brothers’ main goal was to work together on a project, and it turned out to be a game by chance.

Davor, who had heard Gee’s music from her concerts in Vienna, contacted Gee through a mutual friend to see if the brothers could use her music in their new game.

“(Davor) says that once while prototyping Blek he was listening to Erin’s music on CD, and he thought that the sounds would be perfect for the game,” Denis said.

Gee said it’s amazing to be a part of this particular game because she finds Blek interesting for its analytical and creative problem solving.

“It’s fun to be a part of that and also to have people hear my sounds in a totally different way, not in a concert setting but in a game-playing setting,” she said. “I really like the idea that the sounds are out in the world and not just in a concert.”

“Yamaguchi Mouthpiece I” is part of Gee’s “Yamaguchi Mouthpiece” series that she began in 2005 during her residency in Japan.

Jacqui can be reached at [email protected]