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MIT professor Keeril Makan, a musician and composer acclaimedÂ for his technique of layering recorded and live sounds, has beenÂ awarded the prestigious Luciano Berio Rome Prize for musical composition by the American Academy in RomeÂ for 2008-2009.
The prize, announced Thursday, April 10, in New York, carries a stipend ofÂ $24,000, and work and living accommodations for 11 months at the academy.
Makan, assistant professor of music, originally trained as a violinist. He describes his music as an outgrowth of the western classicalÂ tradition, using familiar instruments and other musical traditions in new ways.
Makan's music moves fluidly among disparate sounds,Â weaving them into instrumental combinations that range from small chamber ensembles to works for orchestra.Â Innovative and exploratory, it has required the composer to developÂ hieroglyph-like notations for musicians performing his work. In aÂ saxophone
piece, "Voice within Voice," for example, a row ofÂ jagged markings that look like shark's teeth means "put your teeth on the reed and grind."
But notation is not where the process of composing starts for Makan, a 36-year-old native of New Jersey.
"I write byÂ physically interacting with the instrument I'm composing for. IfÂ I'm writing for the oboe, I'll play it in as many ways as I canÂ imagine," he says. "As IÂ work, new musical possibilities develop. This is how I get the rawÂ materials for a piece; I record myself, then I figure out how I'llÂ work with the material."
Makan will devote the 11-month residency inÂ Rome to working on three major pieces, he says.
One project will be to compose "Tracker," a five-part chamber opera inÂ which technological instruments of the past, such as 19th-centuryÂ contraptions for measuring pulse and motion, are linked thematically to current technologies and to the impact of technology on the imagination and emotional experience.
Sketches for "Tracker" are now taped in five columns to the wall ofÂ Makan's MIT office, a small room packed with books and musical gear.Â Photographs by 19th century scientist Etienne-Jules Marey top eachÂ column; poem-shaped segments of Jena Osman's libretto spill downward like adding machine paper.Â There are no visible musical notes.
In addition to the opera, Makan's plan for Rome is to complete aÂ work for electric guitar and orchestra, commissioned by the AmericanÂ Composers Orchestra, to be premiered this November at Carnegie Hall. He will alsoÂ finish a trio for flute, viola and harp, commissioned by the HarvardÂ Musical Association, for violist and MIT professor Marcus Thompson.
A tall order for 11 months, but Makan, who owns neither a car nor aÂ television, finds economy in technology. He relies on Finale, aÂ notation program, for experimenting with time and modeling, and on a digital audio workstation for analyzing the frequency components ofÂ pre-recorded sounds, en route to creating new ones.
Recent MIT winners of the Rome Prize include Pulitzer Prize-winningÂ novelist Junot Diaz, associate professor in Writing and HumanisticÂ Studies, and John Ochsendorf, associate professor of architecture.
A national competition, the Rome Prize is awarded annually to 15Â emerging artists in various fields.