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Andrew Schloss

Andrew Schloss playing the Radio Drum, 1992
Andrew Schloss, a pioneering artist in new and electronic music, is developing and expanding the Radio Drum, an instrument with which he first experimented at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in the late 1980s. According to Schloss:

"The first-generation Radio Drum was designed by Bob Boie and built at Bell Labs in the mid-1980s as a "three-dimensional mouse." The Radio Drum uses capacitive sensing; you use a radio frequency to measure capacitance. The two sticks are differentiated by using different frequencies for each one. The Radio Drum itself could be called a "gesture sensor" that keeps constant track of the three-dimensional spatial location of mallets in the following way: A small amount of wire is wrapped around the end of each of two sticks and acts as a conducting surface electrically driven by a radio frequency voltage source. The drum surface beneath the sticks receives the signal, and the x and y positions of the sticks are derived by determining the first moment of capacitance between the sticks and the surface below. The z position (height) is given by the reciprocal of the first moment. The greatest accuracy in z is in the region from about 5 cm above the surface and closer." (1)

Schloss has since focused on the possibilities of this instrument, exploring interactive computer music and improvisation. Over his career, he has performed with such artists as Laurie Anderson, Tito Puente, Chucho Valdés and Jeff Gardner. He received a Ph.D. in hearing and speech sciences from Stanford University (Stanford, California, U.S.) in 1985. Schloss was a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Music at Brown University from 1985 to 1989 and a lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of California at San Diego in 1989 before he came to the School of Music at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, in 1990, where he is now an associate professor. Besides his interest in the Radio Drum, Schloss is pursuing ethnomusicological research with a focus on Cuba. Schloss is also the co-director of the 2001 International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) to be held in Havana, Cuba, from September 18 to 22, 2001.

From the beginning of his career, Schloss has paid particular attention to the role of the computer in musical performance and has composed several pieces using computers and virtual instruments. In 1980, he created The Towers of Hanoi, a four-channel computer-generated composition at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University. In the late 1980s, after his first trials with the Radio Drum at IRCAM, he began to compose for this new instrument.

Meconium (1987-1988) is a first example of this experimentation, as the 1988 version was Schloss's first attempt to incorporate the controller. Meconium is an interactive work for computer, synthesizers and Radio Drum. In the 1990s, Schloss began collaborating frequently with David Jaffe, a composer and musician based at Stanford University. They together created Wildlife (1991) and The Seven Wonders of the World (1993), which was later the inspiration for Jaffe’s composition The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (1996). The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is a concerto for Radio Drum and an orchestra of plucked string and percussion instruments. The composition does not use the computer to create sounds but instead relies on specific software programs such as MAX to track the action of the Radio Batons, which are in turn connected to the Radio Drum played by Schloss. The data is then sent to a Disklavier, which is therefore controlled by the beat of the Radio Drum.

"Jaffe’s idea for this piece was to map percussion gestures onto piano sonorities, and although treating the piano as a percussion instrument is by no means a new idea, controlling the Disklavier with what is essentially a percussion instrument certainly gave the composer some interesting and previously unrealizable ideas to explore (...)." (2)

The main thread or focus running through Schloss’s works and experiments throughout the 1990s is best illustrated in a 1993 article written by Jaffe and Schloss. This article, titled "Intelligent Musical Instruments: The Future of Musical Performance or the Demise of the Performer?" and published in INTERFACE Journal for New Music Research, discusses the possible death of the virtuoso and the effects of technology on the live performance of musical compositions. The authors state that:

"In order to increase the amount of information that can be conveyed between musician and instrument ("bandwidth"), we can use a computer to make the instrument able to respond in ways that appear to be "intelligent." This means developing algorithms that interpret gestures from the performer and act upon them in complex ways. However, a new problem emerges here: whereas acoustic instruments have exhibited since the beginning of time a nearly one-to-one correspondence between the performer’s action and the sonic result, these new instruments, with their invisible technology (seeming to border, at times, on "magic"), have no such intrinsic relation. The question becomes: do we need a perceivable cause-and-effect relationship in live performance?" (3)

This preoccupation with the effects of live performance on an audience is vital to the development of Schloss's compositions. He has commented on recent electronic or digital music performances where those on stage simply sit behind computers clicking their mice while sounds come out of the speakers. (4) No one can be absolutely sure that the performance is live or that the "performers" are actually related to the sounds being produced. The performers could be expert musicians or programmers, but the audience, unless highly knowledgeable of computer music, has difficulty relating the performance with the artists’ virtuosity.

His concern with preserving the idea of the virtuoso is translating into the research he has now undertaken to improve on the Radio Drum’s capabilities. His latest research project, along with an eventual performance titled Can You Hear the Shape of a Drum?, is inspired by a 1966 article by mathematician Marc Kac discussing whether a shaman’s square-shaped frame drum sounds different from a round one(5). On a technological level, Schloss hopes to make the Radio Drum more responsive and playable so that programming the instrument with algorithms can be done in real time in front of an audience, thereby showcasing the musician’s performance abilities and reinforcing his virtuosity.

Angela Plohman © 2001 FDL

(1) Andrew Schloss, "Gesture-Sensing for Musical Performance: A Percussive Interface," (accessed June 6, 2001):

(2) Michael Edwards, "The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, A Concerto for Radio-Drum-Performed Piano and Ensemble, by David Jaffe (CD Review)," Array (Spring 1997), (accessed June 6, 2001):

(3) David A. Jaffe and Andrew Schloss, "Intelligent Musical Instruments: The Future of Musical Performance or the Demise of the Performer?" INTERFACE Journal for New Music Research, Vol. 22 No. 3 (August 1993): n.p.n., (accessed June 6, 2001):

(4) "Cycling ’74 Community: Andrew Schloss Interview," Cycling ’74 Community, (accessed May 24, 2001):

(5) This information is taken from Schloss’s project proposal submitted to the Daniel Langlois Foundation, January 31, 2001.