In Conversation with Robert Hasegawa

Robert Hasegawa talks about the Words and Music series opening concert, “Orchestration for the String Quartet: research-creation with the ACTOR Project” and more

Associate professor of music theory Robert Hasegawa joined the Schulich School of Music in 2012. Named a William Dawson Scholar in 2018, the award recognizes him as an academic who is becoming an outstanding and original researcher of world-class caliber and is poised to become a leader in their field. One need only look at his contributions to the Analysis, Creation, and Teaching of Orchestration (ACTOR) Project to see evidence of this. 

Prof. Hasegawa is a proud advocate of contemporary music, and his research interests include musical timbre, spectral music and transformational theory. He is a member of the ACTOR central team which takes care of logistical concerns and helps keep ACTOR’s many diverse projects organized — which is no small feat.  

The Project is an international partnership funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) linking North American and European orchestration practice and pedagogy, of which McGill is the lead partner. ACTOR involves an interdisciplinary team of composers, music theorists, musicologists, computer scientists, psychologists, signal processing scientists, sound recordists, and conductors who engage in the analysis, creation and teaching of orchestration in contemporary classical, popular, film and video game music. Seated in Schulich, the 7-year (2018-2025) Project aims to bring timbre and orchestration to the forefront of scholarship, practice, and public awareness through collaborations among world-class artists, humanists, and scientists. Through three central research axes exploring analysis, technological tool development and innovative outputs via pedagogy, scholarship, and composition, ACTOR encourages ground-breaking research and pilot projects by members and students. 

And we’re about to get a chance to hear some of the exciting results of this research and creativity in performance as part of the Words and Music series at Schulich!  
We connected with Prof. Hasegawa over email to learn more about what we can expect at the upcoming ACTOR event, why he thinks experience in a range of musical situations is a good thing, and how interdisciplinary collaborations in music research can lead to remarkable outcomes.

Could you share some more details about the upcoming Analysis, Creation and Teaching of Orchestration (ACTOR) project with us? 
Our concert on Friday, September 23 is part of an ongoing project called "Orchestration for the String Quartet" developed within the ACTOR partnership. ACTOR is an international research collaboration including 13 academic institutions and 8 private-sector partners designed to take an interdisciplinary and creative approach to the study of orchestration, which we define very broadly as "the selection and combination of timbres towards a musical end."  

The string quartet project has been developing for more than a year now, and features premieres of works by four graduate student composers: Chelsea Komschlies and Marilou Buron from McGill and Showan Tavakol and Miko Sabatino from Université de Montréal. While they've been developing their pieces, they've had two workshops allowing them to test their ideas and to get feedback from the Quatuor Bozzini, an amazing Montreal string quartet that specializes in contemporary music. 

Alongside this process, I've been working with a research team — Jimmie LeBlanc of the Université de Montréal and doctoral students Emanuelle Majeau-Bettez and Jade Roth from McGill — to document the writing process and the evolution of the composers' ideas through their experience with the quartet. We're exploring what unique challenges emerge when writing for the string quartet and how composers make the most of the ensemble's possibilities. We are really delighted to share these pieces with the public and to frame them within the context of our continuing research! 

What is something everyone should know about interdisciplinary research and performance?
The thing I love about interdisciplinary collaborations in music research is that they allow all the participants to share their expertise towards a common goal. Musicians have so much specialized knowledge, but we don't always find ways to convey that information to people outside of our own corner of a musical world. When there's an opportunity for a cellist, a composer, and a theorist/musicologist to talk together in depth and share sounds as well as words, some really remarkable outcomes can emerge.

What is exciting to you about your field right now? 
My research field of music theory has been changing rapidly in the last five years and belatedly extending its scope to include lots of music outside its traditional sphere of western classical music. It's been exciting to see other musical traditions (Japanese, Chinese, sub-Saharan African, etc.) and contemporary genres (jazz, rock, hip-hop) considered by scholars in terms of their musical structures and concepts, and I have been grateful for the chance to broaden my own understanding of how music works in these different styles. 

What is currently propelling you in your research? 
I'd say there are two central themes in my research. One is understanding how music relates to perception and the psychology of hearing: how the physics and psychophysics of sound define our experience as listeners. A lot of my research considers how contemporary composers have used concepts from the science of acoustics to inform their construction of musical structures built of pitches and timbres. On the other side, I'm interested in the creative process of musicians: how they actually conceive and make musical forms. Lately I've been particularly fascinated by improvisation and the construction of musical structures in real time.

What advice would you give to your starting-at-university self? 
I'd recommend listening, performing, and composing in as broad a range of styles and situations as possible. There's a lot of encouragement to specialize very early in just one genre, but having experience in a range of musical situations is great for developing overall musicality and raising questions that wouldn't come up otherwise. While I know there's great value in deep specialization, I think it's important to gain some perspective from hands-on experience in different musical worlds, too. 

Enjoy this Research Alive presentation given by Prof. Hasegawa a few years ago

Robert Hasegawa | Echo and transformation in new music

An in-depth presentation of his research in music theory focusing on pieces written by George Benjamin. Live piano excerpts and performances are played by pianists Chris Goddard and Zhenni Li.

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