Commencement 2007: Unlocking the Power of Music

May 11, 2007

Commencement 2007: Unlocking the Power of Music

Troy, N.Y. – Since his freshman year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Zane Van Dusen has played in 13 bands — and he founded 11 of them. A vocalist who also plays five instruments, the New York City native has been expressing himself through music for years. Now he has combined his lifelong passion with a keen set of technical and computing skills to create a device that allows all people, regardless of physical mobility, the opportunity to experience music’s positive effects.

The resulting project — called an adaptive use musical instrument — was a true labor of love. 

Van Dusen, a senior majoring in electronic media, arts, and communication (EMAC) and computer science, worked with an interdisciplinary group of students led by Pauline Oliveros, a world-renowned musician and distinguished professor of the arts at Rensselaer. The team designed and implemented a computer interface that tracks the movement of a user’s head to allow them to produce electronic sounds and compose music on a virtual keyboard in both solo and ensemble settings.

The device provides a much-needed outlet for creative expression for people with extremely limited mobility, particularly individuals with severe cerebral palsy (CP) — a neurological disorder that permanently affects body movement and muscle coordination and has the capacity to render people unable to speak or move. It also has therapeutic benefits, according to Van Dusen.

“We recently tested the adaptive use musical instrument in a clinic and noticed that many of the children were more focused on their movements because they were motivated by the sounds they were creating,” he said. “One child played the instrument for almost an hour, even though it took a lot of effort for him to keep his head up that long.” 

Beyond musical communication, Van Dusen sees potential for the device to allow users to create verbal exchanges: “The interface could be adapted to create speech software, allowing those who suffer from CP to form full sentences, rather than just yes or no responses.”

Following his graduation on May 19, Van Dusen plans to continue working with Oliveros through the summer to perfect the prototype adaptive use musical instrument, and to create additional interfaces. Oliveros will spearhead the project with a group of Rensselaer students and volunteers from her Deep Listening Institute, an organization that fosters a unique approach to music, literature, art and meditation, and promotes innovation among artists and audiences in creating, performing, recording, and educating with a global perspective.

Making Sure Rensselaer Rocks
In addition to opening musical opportunities for the disabled, Van Dusen has also opened the ears of his fellow classmates as activities manager and president of Ground Zero (GZ), Rensselaer’s underground arts and culture club located in the basement of Nugent Hall, a residence hall for upperclass students.

The group hosts bi-weekly open mike nights — where students perform pop, rock, rap, punk, jazz, metal, and electronic music to a crowd of their peers — and is responsible for recruiting bands to play concerts on campus.

Since his sophomore year, Van Dusen has been bringing independent artists from all over the United States and Canada to the Institute’s Troy campus.

“I knew that many students at Rensselaer would like the bands that I had seen in my hometown in New York City, but never would have had the chance to see them play. So, I contacted some of these bands, found a few student bands to open, and then we charged students just $3 admission for the concert to cover the cost of the band’s performance and transportation. Since our concerts typically draw a sizable, excited and open-minded crowd, GZ has become a fairly well-known destination for underground bands. 

Van Dusen has been responsible for helping put together more than 50 GZ events including concerts, open mikes, art shows, and film screenings.

“The work that goes into coordinating GZ events and working for Rensselaer’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) is probably equal to that of a really hard class,” he says. “But it’s all just an extension of my mission to promote art on campus.”

Contact: Amber Cleveland
Phone: (518) 276-2146


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