Jade Simmons’ band will have an unusual new musician sitting in during her concert at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts this Saturday. Like the others in the pianist’s trio, Collide, the new member is a skilled improviser. He listens closely to the music, analyzes its structure, watches the other players carefully and even bobs his head to the rhythm from time to time. But unlike them, he’s made of metal.
“We like him, but you definitely have to get on his page,” says Simmons about performing with Shimon, Georgia Tech’s improvising, marimba-playing robot. “We’re calling him ‘the diva’ now.”
Shimon, whose name means “one who hears” or “one who is heard” in Hebrew, was designed by Gil Weinberg, director of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, in 2008 with help from his colleagues Guy Hoffman and Roberto Aimi of Alium Labs and funded by the National Science Foundation.
Shimon’s performance with Simmons on Saturday is just one aspect of her ARTech residency, a new Georgia Tech program that invites professional artists to use their time on campus to explore the possible integration of technology into their artistic processes.
“Bufana,” the piece Simmons and Shimon will play, involves a series of improvisations on various motifs, with an overall Latin jazz sound. “In some cases he imitates me, in some cases he waits for me to imitate him, and other times he does a free improv,” she says. “If I’m nodding my head, he nods along with me. You can hear he is making choices and expecting you to respond to those choices. It’s an exciting interaction.”
Shimon isn’t the only way Simmons will make use of inventions by Georgia Tech scientists in her performance. The music technology department has designed software called Urban Remix, a downloadable application that allows users to record sounds on their smartphones. The concert will open with Simmons playing a piece that uses random sounds she asked students, professors and others in the Tech community to record.
She will play live over such sound samples as a girl speaking a snippet of Chinese, a little boy playing with his father, a sneeze and the clop of flip-flops. “I’ve given myself some groundwork, but I’m also forcing myself to really have to do things in the moment on Saturday,” she says. Her performance will also include some more traditional Paganini variations, but it’s all meant to explore the central theme of her residency: rhythm.
Simmons is the second artist to complete the ARTech residency. Dancer Jonah Bokaer used a new mobile application to allow for audience interaction during his dance performance last year.
Engaging with students throughout the year on a campus that isn’t always focused on art has been both challenging and rewarding for Simmons. “When you come onto this campus, you feel the intensity,” she says. “Certain schools have an atmosphere of serious business. The arts can end up being an afterthought. But once I’ve gotten in front of the students, I don’t have any issues with that.”
A favorite event was a lecture with students at the School of Architecture, which sparked a conversation about similarities in the creative processes of architects and musicians. “I had no idea how much they considered rhythm in their planning,” the pianist says. “We had this great discussion about where the creative impulse comes from. Those kinds of discussions make us feel like we’re from the same planet. And then I can talk about Rachmaninov and Chopin.”
Simmons grew up in a musical family in Charleston, South Carolina, and studied at Northwestern University. During her college years, as she immersed herself in the piano, she was also drawn to compete in beauty pageants. “The bait that got me was the scholarship money aspect,” she explains.
She was Miss Chicago, then Miss Illinois and then was first runner-up in the 2000 Miss America pageant. “If you had asked me at 16 or 17 if the Miss America pageant was something I thought I’d ever do, I would probably have laughed you out of the room,” she says. “One of the most difficult things when I was competing was that I was one of the biggest critics of beauty pageants, and I still am. Ironically, the kind of confidence that makes you successful in a pageant is the kind that comes from not growing up doing them.”
Simmons is quick to point out that the pageant did allow her to get her music to a wide audience. “I remember getting to the coda of the Chopin etude I played for the talent competition, and the entire convention center just erupted in applause. It made me realize that music transcends; it doesn’t have to be only for a select few elite people. I try to take that with me as I move forward, remembering that music has the power to move.”
Like that moment, the residency has allowed her to contemplate new ways of interacting with audiences. “It was one of those engagements I couldn’t even dream up,” she says. “It’s so easy to get tunnel vision and hyperfocused on your instrument. This was an opportunity to explore lots of my passions.”