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Once a physicist: Sergi Jorda

Sergi Jordà is a professor of digital arts at the Audiovisual Institute of the Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, Spain. He researches computer music and created an electronic instrument, the reactable, which was recently used on a world tour by Icelandic singer Björk.

Sergi Jordà

How did you first become interested in physics?
As a child I was always inventing weird artefacts or constructing houses out of balsa wood with the idea of becoming an architect. Then as a teenager I had a kind of ideological conflict, thinking that the nice architectural projects that were worth working on were mostly for the rich. Somehow this brought me into physics, although at that time, the subject didn't mean much more to me than bricks slipping on inclined planes.

Where did you study physics and how much did you enjoy it?
I studied at the University of Barcelona in the early 1980s. The sad truth is that by concentrating on passing the exams, I didn't have much time to enjoy the deeper concepts. Near the end of my studies I was tutored by a disciple of the Belgian chemistry Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine and I started to really appreciate nonlinear thermodynamics, and complex and chaotic systems.

How and when did you become interested in computer music?
While studying physics, I also played the saxophone – a sort of free jazz – and in my third year at university I discovered that I loved computer programming. Then, in my fourth year, I came across a snapshot of an audio spectrogram on the back cover of an album by Laurie Anderson. I had studied the Fourier transform in an abstract way (no-one ever talked about sound during my five years of physics), so I could intuitively understand what the image was about: sound, and therefore music, could be "understood" by computers. I soon imagined that computers could be used for making music – even free jazz. And believing that computers were far better suited than me to repetitive and unexciting tasks, I gave up practising scales on the saxophone and started programming.

How did your career develop after you graduated?
By then I was already sure that I wanted to become a computer musician, although I didn't know how to proceed. I first survived as a computer programmer, then started teaching programming in private schools. Meanwhile, I studied anything I could find on computer music and made my own music programs that I started using in performances. In the 1990s I worked on multimedia projects and computer art, before returning to academia to teach in the computer-science faculty and do research into real-time musical interaction between humans and computers.

What are you working on at the moment?
For the last four years I have been working on the reactable, together with Günter Geiger, Martin Kaltenbrunner and Marcos Alonso from the Music Technology Group at my university. The reactable is an electronic musical instrument conceived for collaborative computer-music performance and improvisation. It is based on a circular table around which several musicians share control of the instrument by rotating, moving and caressing physical artefacts on its luminous surface.

What are some of your career highlights?
In the 1990s I had a successful collaboration with Catalan theatre group la Fura dels Baus, which gave birth to FMOL, a software program for online musical collaboration that can be considered as the precursor of the reactable. But the reactable itself is by far my most successful creation and also the most accomplished. It is the fruit of 20 years of work in the field; and the fact that an artist such as Björk used it extensively for her last world tour is enormously gratifying.

How has your background in physics helped you in your career?
Somehow it made me feel confident about the potential of human knowledge and understanding. It gave me the illusion that anything, with the possible exception of humans themselves, can be understood – no matter how complex it seems or how long it may take.

This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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