If the first six winners of the Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition are any indication, the future of music will be weird. Founded at Georgia Tech in 2009 with the mission of identifying the instruments of the future, the competition has crowned such oddities as a “drum” controlled by pushing down its elastic top, a system for producing music with the sound of your body, and a series of modules that turn gestures into sound.
This year’s winner, anointed last month in Atlanta, might be the most intriguing of them all. Cantor Digitalis is a singing synthesizer that allows users to control the pitch, intensity, and vowel articulation of the vocal sounds it emits with exacting precision. The key is the controller, a graphics tablet like the one you might use with Photoshop, which allows sounds to be controlled by position, gestures, and pressure. “What’s so cool about the tablet, is that it gives you a very rich, very sensitive, high resolution, multidimensional control,” says Jason Freeman, associate professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Music. “But that’s not enough to win.”
The judges who choose the Guthman winner are not just looking at design and engineering. They also consider musicality, and a team that showed off the Cantor Digitalis excelled there. “They performed with a quartet of these and they clearly put a lot of time into developing virtuosic performance techniques,” Freeman says. “The level of musicality and the sophistication of the results really wowed the judges.”
That quartet is called the Chorus Digitalis, and it’s made up of the Cantor Digitalis design team. Their inaugural performance as the “first choir in the world composed of synthetic voices controlled in real time by graphic tablet” was in March 2011. That gave them several years to perfect their performances before the Guthman competition, where they showed off the instrument’s abilities and its range of voice options (from childish to roaring) by playing classical, pop, and experimental music, along with one song you probably know:
Though Freeman acknowledges that if he sat down with a Cantor Digitalis he wouldn't be able to produce anything like that, he says the instrument’s versatility and its “ability to outlive a single performer” is one of the reasons it took home 2015’s top prize. “We look for something that has the potential to be used in a lot of different situations and we saw a real possibility here to have a lasting impact,” he said.