Steven Kemper Named Professor of TIMARA

Ongoing work revolves around musical robotics, instrument design, human-computer interaction, and musical expression.

June 2, 2023

Joshua Reinier

Steven Kemper portrait - man with short brown hair and glasses wearing a light blue shirt
Photo credit: Courtesy of Steven Kemper

Steven Kemper, a creative music technologist, instrument designer, and composer, has been appointed to a permanent position in the Technology in Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) Department at Oberlin Conservatory. Kemper’s appointment begins in fall 2023. 

Kemper comes to Oberlin from Rutgers University, where he served as a professor of music technology and composition at the Mason Gross School of the Arts. With a background in developing technologies that bridge the gap between computer-based music and the physical world, Kemper’ brings expertise that reflects TIMARA’s interdisciplinary and creative approaches.

“It’s incredible that, for more than 50 years, TIMARA has been at the forefront of technologically mediated musical expression within a conservatory,” Kemper says. “Given the eclectic nature of my own career, I am looking forward to working with students on a variety of different types of projects.”

Kemper’s work revolves around musical robotics, instrument design, human-computer interaction, gesture, and musical expression. He has gained recognition for an approach that combines technical development, creative output, and humanistic inquiry, exemplified by his creation of vibration-motor actuated performance systems including the Tremolo-Harp, Lux Tremens, Manus Tremens, and Tremolo-Chimes. 

Kemper is a cofounder of Expressive Machines Musical Instruments, a collective dedicated to creating and composing music for robotic instruments. He also co-developed the RAKS (Remote electroAcoustic Kinesthetic Sensing) System, a wireless sensor interface designed specifically for belly dancers in collaboration with composer and dancer Aurie Hsu ’96, Oberlin Conservatory associate dean of academic affairs and a TIMARA professor.

Tremolo Harp Study 1 (2020)

Tremolo-Harp Study 1 represents the first piece composed for the Tremolo-Harp. This study explores the instrument’s unique timbral properties as well as its capabilities to create long, sustained textures and continuous dynamic changes. The overall musical concept for this piece is one of slowly-evolving chords of differing durations that move across the range of the instrument.

Kemper’s work also encompasses acoustic composition and research. He has a long-running series of compositions for acoustic instruments and fixed media electronics that explore the connection between sound and urban vibrancy, which have been played by groups including the American Modern Ensemble, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, NOW ensemble, and the Grupo Sax-Ensemble. Kemper draws from field recordings and data sonification to investigate the ways that periodic sounds help form a sense of place. His research has been widely recognized and presented at prestigious conferences such as the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression, the International Computer Music Conference, and the International Conference on Movement and Computing, and been published in respected journals including Leonardo, Leonardo Music Journal, Organised Sound, and Frontiers in Robotics and AI.

Lux Tremens (2018)

Lux Tremens, Latin for “trembling light,” was created in 2018 for the Rutgers Interactive Music Ensemble (RIME). In this structured improvisation, which takes place in the dark, performers use vibration motors to actuate small percussion instruments or found resonant objects. Custom-designed hardware allows performers to control the speed of the vibration motors by adjusting the amount of light they shine on photoresistors, thus altering the intensity of the motors’ vibration.

Kemper looks forward to returning to the environment of a liberal arts college. He shares, “I am thrilled to join the artistic and intellectual community of Oberlin. While I have appreciated working at large public research universities, some of my most memorable educational experiences came through my close working relationships with faculty during my time as an undergraduate at Bowdoin College.” He plans to introduce new courses in sensor-based instrument design, musical robotics, and data sonification, in addition to exploring the connection between music, myth, technology, and futurism.

“I am looking forward to sharing my expertise in these areas with the TIMARA community as well as learning from TIMARA students and faculty. What stands out to me the most about TIMARA is the passionate creativity of the students and the diversity of musical approaches that they bring.”  

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