KU student uses smartphone to make music

Kansas University music composition student Jason Charney’s latest piece doesn’t make music using traditional instruments such as horns, violins and pianos. Instead, he uses his iPhone and a computer to generate sounds.

When performing his piece “Compass,” Charney will at times shake the phone, raise it high above his head, spin it and adjust levels on the touch screen. All of the actions cause different sounds.

“I’m very interested in interactive music,” said the senior from Overland Park.

While he enjoys composing this electronic music with its synthesized sound and shattering glass effects, he’s composed classical music too.

Charney has taken three courses in electronic music from the KU School of Music’s specialist in the area, Kip Haaheim, an associate professor of music composition.

“He doesn’t get caught up in the technology,” Haaheim said. “He uses the technology effectively, but he never loses sight of the art.”

“The technology” involves a lot of software development, Haaheim said. Charney was able to find the basic programming structure that allowed the iPhone to interact with the computer from another user in the small community of people interested in this kind of music, Haaheim said.

But most of the software necessary for the performance he had to create himself. Charney has found himself on the cutting edge of the field, his professor said.

“It’s not like something that’s commercially available like Garage Band,” Haaheim said. “This goes way beyond that.”

Charney said he’s performed the piece with the iPhone in an Apple store in Chicago and it’s attracted more attention than he thought. As for his future, he’s open to a number of different pathways.

“If I can make a living making music, I’ll be happy,” he said.

That may be easier today than it was in years past, Haaheim said. In addition to opportunities in academia and the film industry, today’s video game developers are paying for original music too.

“They put some real dollars into the production of the music and generally put out some high-quality stuff,” he said.

And from a professor’s standpoint, working with a motivated and intelligent student like Charney isn’t an opportunity that comes along that often.

“You get a student like this once every 10 years,” Haaheim said. “He’s a delight.”