HOOS FOR ART: Aurie Hsu
With its dual tracks of Critical and Comparative Studies in Music (CCS), highlighting interdisciplinary perspectives on music and musical culture, and Composition and Computer Technologies (CCT), which deals with the integration of acoustic and computer-based music composition and multi-media, the McIntire Department of Music’s PhD program is often hailed for the flexibility it affords its students. While receiving her PhD in Composition and Computer Technologies at UVA, Aurie Hsu added her own twist to things by combining her talents as a composer, pianist, and belly dancer, pushing the boundaries of wearable technology to explore new relationships between music and movement and creating fascinating electronic music in the process. Hsu is currently working as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Oberlin Conservatory and teaching at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. Her award-winning compositions have been performed around the world, and she has worked with UVA’s Steven Kemper to create a groundbreaking wearable-sensor system designed specifically to capture the movements of a belly dancer.
What did you like most about your experience in the PhD program at UVA?
I thought that the diversity of creative opportunities offered combined with scholarly research and spirit of experimentation, provided fertile ground for musicians. This allowed me to find my own voice. One of the greatest things about the UVA graduate program in music is that you don’t find two people who are doing the same thing. There is crossover between the students for a healthy dialogue and a lot of interaction and exchange of ideas, but everyone is really unique in pursuing their own path.
How did you settle on the idea of incorporating belly dance into your work?
My background is actually in piano performance, and I started to combine that with various types of electronic music. I wanted to find a way of performing live with electronics that involved physical motion. I had been living in San Francisco for many years and started belly dancing there. I knew UVA was a great place to get into wearable sensors because there were people doing research on movement, sound, and physical computing.
Talk about the special system you have developed for this purpose.
When I got to UVA, I collaborated with Steven Kemper, a fellow alum, and we built the RAKS (Remote electroAcoustic Kinesthetic Sensing) system. The RAKS is a wireless sensor interface designed specifically for belly dance. There is a flex sensor in a corset that I wear to capture torso movement. There is an accelerometer in the belt, which captures changes in acceleration to senses change in the hips. The finger cymbals act as digital switches, so I can activate sound samples. The system sends wireless data to a computer and we use Max software to map the data to musical parameters to control pitch, timbre, and other sound processing modules. The reason we use belly dance vocabulary is the movement corresponds to fundamental elements of electronic music. For example the undulation corresponds to a sine wave and isolations correspond with digital switches.
Talk about how your UVA experience informed and helped where you are now in your career.
The faculty and staff at UVA wholeheartedly supported us in our creative projects and research. I had opportunities to perform with faculty on their own projects, and they were amazing mentors in terms of guiding my own teaching practice. My mentors include Judith Shatin, who is the Founding Director of the Virginia Center for Computer Music (VCCM) at UVA, Matthew Burtner, my dissertation advisor, and Ted Coffey. I also drew a lot of support from the students who were there at the same time. The CCS and CCT programs work fluidly together in the department, and I got a wide variety of perspectives on my work.