Arts concert review

Technology and music intertwine in a stellar performance

Visiting artist Jacob Collier premieres new music arrangements

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Jacob Collier performs with an orchestra at Kresge Auditorium.
L. Barry Hetherington

Imagination Off the Charts — Jacob Collier at MIT

Presented by MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology and Music and Theater Arts

Featuring: Jacob Collier, MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, Jacob Collier Project Orchestra, Jacob Collier Project Chorus

MIT Kresge Auditorium

Dec. 10, 2016

It was a little past one on Friday afternoon. There sat MIT visiting artist Jacob Collier in the Student Center Coffeehouse, asking us what our worlds were. By the word “worlds,” he referred to thought patterns, ideas, passions. It’s a funny thing to be asked what you were interested in by the person you had the same question for.

I had the privilege of joining Collier for lunch along with the rest of the MIT Arts Scholars on Friday before his concert the following night. Collier discussed his creative process and origins, remarking that he entered the music world through learning musical notes as friends and figments of emotions rather than as part of music theory.

His mother’s music room laid the groundwork for his experimentation with various instruments. It was also where he single-handedly arranged, performed, and produced his YouTube videos and consequently, his debut album, aptly named “In My Room.” He has since been nominated for two Grammy awards.

Ben Bloomberg, a PhD student at the Media Lab, reached out to Collier through Facebook, seeking to develop music hardware to take Collier’s multi-instrumental and solo a capella YouTube videos to the stage. Bloomberg helped Collier develop a vocal harmonizer that could create 12-note harmonies instantly.

Saturday night opened to Guillermo Klein’s El Minotauro, a fantastic jazz piece with an exceptional performance by the trumpet section. After Collier’s entrance, the hall’s atmosphere only intensified. Multi-instrumentalist Collier jumped from playing the piano to strumming on an acoustic guitar to plucking notes on a cello in the same show. The harmonies of a capella singers, the syncopation of notes by the jazz players, and the synthetic voice of Collier singing through his harmonizer all melded together beautifully.

Special attention should be paid to the song “Sonic Bloom Mountain” arranged by Collier. Its name is an homage to Bloomberg, who collaborated with Collier to put together a system involving an iPad, a mini controller, and the ensemble members’ phones.

With this technology, Collier sent music notes to the ensemble’s mobile phones instantaneously while they improvised with their instruments. The initially slow, dreamy harmonies of the wind section grew in intensity, the trumpets blaring in the forefront soon followed by the percussion and vocals, resulting in an enchanting piece.

Other noteworthy songs include the robust “Hajanga” and the mellow “In The Real Early Morning.” The MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble deserves praise for maintaining the rich tones and the exuberant melodies, never faltering throughout the performance and shining brightest when they were in the spotlight.

It came as no surprise that by the end the audience was standing and singing along to the final piece, “Saviour.” Collier was met with a standing ovation and an encore that continued for so long that he returned to the piano to perform a rendition of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” with his harmonizer.

As he sang, I wondered what was so remarkably charming about his musical arrangements. One could argue “jack of all trades, master of none,” but it’s difficult to ignore the fact that his overwhelming talent and ear for music has kept up with his ambition. Collier’s arrangements read as jubilant play, but his diverse range of expression goes past mere experimentation.

But even before the theoretical analysis came the emotional resonance with his craft. Collier’s sheer joy of music permeated every aspect of his performance and his personality. His humility and gratitude despite his overwhelming talent speaks for itself.

Bloomberg introduced him to the Institute but I think there was something remarkably MIT-like in Collier’s music even before then. His homemade YouTube videos reflect one of the great things about MIT: the boldness to innovate and a humane compassion for the world.

Last September, Frederick Harris, Jr., Director of MIT Wind and Jazz Ensembles, Bloomberg and Collier began developing the idea for this performance. At the time, they had only planned to have 40 to 50 musicians, but now, with over 200 people gathered together for one night, Collier’s arrangements were brought to the stage with torrential force.

A special dream had been realized.