Michigan State University

Inspiration in Unlikely Places: Making Music in Hollander MakeCentral

Katie Diamond

For as long as Sarah Palermo can remember, she has always been drawn to music. She started piano lessons when she was five-years-old with the support of her parents who both have an appreciation for music.

In middle school and high school, Palermo started writing and recording songs on her family computer. She credits her high school choir director for encouraging her to do arrangements which expanded her vocal and lyrical abilities.

In 2015, she graduated from Westminster Choir College with a degree in music theory and composition before attending MSU a year later to pursue a Master of Music degree in music composition.

While working toward her master’s in the fall of 2017, Palermo’s classmate, Natalie Law, approached her about composing a piece for Law to perform at her master’s bassoon recital coming up the following semester. Without hesitation, Palermo agreed.

Composer Sarah Palermo used the unique, electronic sounds of printers and other equipment in Hollander MakeCentral to write a song about a robot.

Law granted Palermo a tremendous amount of creative freedom, and initially, Palermo had no idea what she wanted the song to be about. After some brainstorming, she decided she wanted to tell a story. As a fan of science fiction, Palermo was inspired to explore what distinguishes humans from machines, leading her to the idea to write a song about a robot.

The song would tell a story of a robot named Unit 098 S1-10 transforming from a mechanical device to a sentient being capable of exceeding its original programming and expressing needs of its own. Palermo wanted the song to depict an electronic environment with mechanical sounds of a robot working in an industrial setting.

Her inspiration came from the printer sounds she heard growing up in Maine at her parent’s printing and graphic design business below their family apartment.

She mentioned the idea to composition professor Lyn Goeringer who suggested that she check out Hollander MakeCentral at MSU Libraries. She arranged a visit with Julie Taylor, Espresso Book Machine Coordinator in Hollander MakeCentral, and the project began.

Equipped with her Roland R-05 recorder, she made the trip to Hollander MakeCentral to collect sounds from the 3D printers, Espresso Book Machine, vinyl cutter, poster plotters, and anything else she found that created an interesting tone or beat.

"The 3D printer was just awesome. I was able to get a lot of cool sounds from it. There was one melodic segment that it played while it was creating the object, and it’s just so cool. It’s chromatic and inconsistent in rhythm,” said Palermo.

This wasn’t her first time writing electronic music, but working with the varying rhythms produced by the machines in Hollander MakeCentral wasn’t easy.

"The trickiest part was the coordination with the electronic track,” said Palermo.

She edited using REAPER, a digital audio workstation and MIDI sequencer software. The live processing effects were done in Max/MSP.

Bassoonist Natalie Law and vocalist Bailey Shepherd performing "Mean Time Between Failure" for Palermo’s master’s composition recital

Palermo took what started as a set of noises in the library and turned it into music. The finished piece is titled “Mean Time Between Failure,” and it is for bassoon, voice, and electronics. The title of the piece comes from the engineering term referring to the predicted amount of time that a device will function without failure.

Listen here.


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