Long distance duet tests how sound travels

The bell tower and viola duet was not only beautiful, but an exercise in “sound literacy and listening,” said the UC Berkeley professor behind the viola. (UC Berkeley video by Nils Bultmann)

It was a long-distance duet — a violist on Faculty Glade and a carillonist in the towering Campanile. They couldn’t see or communicate with each other, but their Thursday noontime concert, part of a music department course called Music Now, was a successful exercise in performing across a large space.

Nils Bultmann, the violist, who also is a composer and a guest professor in the department, says the course is about “sound literacy and listening. We study the fundamental principles of how sound works and develop vocabulary and skills to listen to and discuss sound occurring both in the physical world and in music.”

No background in music is needed for the Music 29 course, which also features “a little bit of science — how ear works, how sound travels,” says Bultmann. “We talk about the speed of sound and whether it’s possible to collaborate at a distance.”

A crowd gathered to hear the Thursday noontime duet. (UC Berkeley photo by Tonya Becerra)

A crowd gathered to hear the Thursday noontime duet. (UC Berkeley photo by Tonya Becerra)

Bultmann’s students recorded the dreamy “Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Part — originally written for viola and piano — with microphones, both in the Campanile, where University Carillonist Jeff Davis played the carillon, and on Faculty Glade, where their professor played viola on a grassy hill. In class after the performance — it meets on Thursdays in Hertz Hall — they mixed the sounds together to create a finished product.

After the piece ended, many students sitting and lying in the grass lingered. “It kind of cast a spell on them,” says Bultmann. He says each time the class meets, he requires students to sit silently for about four minutes in a “deep listening” exercise. They pay attention, he says, “to the sounds of the room and the sounds in the room,” such as electrical hums and distant voices.

The Thursday noontime concert was a successful exercise in performing across a large space, said Nils Bultmann, the viola player and guest UC Berkeley professor. (UC Berkeley photo by Anne Brice)

The Thursday noontime concert was a successful exercise in performing across a large space, said Nils Bultmann, the viola player and guest UC Berkeley professor. (UC Berkeley photo by Anne Brice)

A Berkeley alumnus who completed his Ph.D. in music in 2013, Bultmann composes music for classical ensembles and is also interested in collaborations among instruments. He once even played a duet with a musician on the didgeridoo.

He says he heard about the noon carillon concerts, thought a collaboration with Davis would be a fun challenge, and “we started talking and came up with this idea.”

The class of about 275 students has frequent performances as a means of demonstrating the core principles of the course. It uses the online textbook ExSound, which was developed by composer and UC Berkeley professor and current department chair Edmund Campion.