Sonic Engineering

Story by Marcus Jackson

New Zealand School Music, 2017

Man and Machine

Experimentation, innovation, creation: this may as well be the mantra for SLECT – the Sonic Engineering research group at Victoria.

Built on an ethic of open-mindedness, sonic engineering is a key factor in furthering the legacy of electronic music making.

Sonic engineering bridges the divide between music and engineering departments, drawing equally on elements from both disciplines. A relatively new focus at Victoria, the group was set up by Dr. Ajay Kapur and Dr. Dale Carnegie.

Ajay’s (2017) work revolves around one question: “How do you make a computer improvise [music] with a human?” and it is this inquisitive kind of thinking that drives the group today.

A Strong Foundation

From Douglas Lilburn’s work in electronic music, Jack Body’s sound art pieces, Dugal McKinnon’s work with multiple loudspeakers, and Michael Norris’ acclaimed audio software, creative technology has always had a stronghold at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music (NZSM).

The undeniable presence of technology in art, alongside a prioritisation of art over tech, resulted in a rare interdisciplinary partnership between music and engineering –one rooted in respect for what each brings to the table.

A World of Possibilities

Dr. Jim Murphy, currently a lecturer at NZSM, began his academic journey in New Mexico, USA. Initially studying geophysics, Jim taught himself how to solder in order to build himself a modular analog synthesizer. After discovering that much of what he wanted to realise could be achieved with robotics, he transferred to California Institute of the Arts, under the tutelage of Ajay.

Completing his BFA in 2010, Jim moved to Victoria to work on Kritaanjli a self-playing robotic harmonium. In 2015, Jim completed his PhD, creating a series of self-playing robotic musical instruments capable of super-fine degrees of control.

Global Acclaim

Not only do students create robotic instruments: they have also found acclaim with installation-based audiovisual sculptures. Recent PhD graduate and current lecturer Dr. Mo Zareei won first place in the Sound Art category of the 2015 Sonic Arts Awards for his piece Rasping Music, which featured in the 2014 Wellington LUX Festival, a festival celebrating light-based art works.

Alongside Jim, the pair exhibited in the 2015 Festival, and are in the process of creating a new work for the 2017 Festival. Mo’s work asks us to reconsider noise, and to find beauty in its harshness.

Redefining Art

As the art world continues to spill over into a host of new media and materials, sonic engineering works to further explore the artistic opportunities presented by technology. Graduate Chris Wratt released their album as a video game making use of the rapidly snowballing indie videogame network.

Students are now learning how to utilise code to create the soundtracks for games to create sound environments that heighten the user’s experience. As virtual reality continues to grow, sonic engineering bridges the gap between imaginary and real.

Looking to the Future

Despite the breadth of the discipline, one thing is shared by all: an overarching desire to continually explore, experiment, and innovate.

In a world where technology is always evolving, students are making sure to stay ahead of the curve.


Gate 7, Kelburn Parade, Kelburn, Wellington 6012, New Zealand