Arts documentary review

Documenting the unchartable imagination of Jacob Collier

“Imagination Off the Charts” documentary covers Jacob Collier’s time at MIT

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Jacob Collier performing at his concert "Imagination Off the Charts."

Imagination Off the Charts

Featuring Jacob Collier

Directed by Jean Dunoyer

Produced by MIT Video Productions

Jacob Collier, a multi-Grammy-winning music artist, came to MIT on Sept. 8 for a screening of the film “Imagination Off the Charts” covering his time at MIT last year. Collier collaborates with Ben Bloomberg, a doctoral candidate in the MIT Media Lab, to build technology that “multiplies” the music that one talented musician can create.

The film, directed by Jean Dunoyer, captured Collier’s time educating students and working with new technologies at MIT. At the end, 200 MIT musicians had the opportunity to perform on stage with him. After the film concluded, Dr. Harris, the director of the MIT Wind and Jazz Ensembles, who worked with Collier last year, offered these words: “I am so happy.”

Jacob Collier’s collaboration with MIT started spontaneously when Bloomberg watched one of Collier’s videos and was fascinated. Bloomberg sent Collier a Facebook message asking if Collier would like to build anything, and Collier enthusiastically agreed.

Collier wanted to be able to sing and play more than one note at once. Existing technologies could “multiply” the voice into four notes, but that wasn’t what Collier had in mind. Through their collaboration, Bloomberg built a Vocal Harmoniser that enables Collier to sing infinite notes.

Bloomberg also worked with Collier to allow him to communicate with musicians and give them notes to play while they are performing on stage.

Collier’s piano was wired to a computer, which could wirelessly talk to the musician’s smart phones resting on their stands, showing them what note to play at each second as the piece progressed. Collier feels that in this way, he is truly playing every instrument at once.

Despite — or perhaps because of —  the high use of technology in his artistry, Collier emphasizes keeping the feel of the performance human. He uses technology as an amplifier of human creativity and musical capability.

Collier’s path to musical genius and success diverges from the traditional path. When he was a young child, Collier’s mother noticed his proclivity for music and played CDs of classical works simply to expose him to them. Through this exposure, and without disciplined practice or even formal study, Collier came to love music and to enjoy creating its different forms and “chas[ing] those goosebump moments.”. He described music, saying, “it’s not a matter of life and death. It’s just beautiful.”

It should be noted that Collier is a genius in music. He recounted when, at age two, his mother asked him what pitch the vacuum cleaner had, and he correctly said it was a G. During the Q&A session, he once again demonstrated his perfect pitch, playing the piano and noting that it was fractionally out of tune.

Collier has similar feelings on education, holding that it is more valuable to give students questions and some clues so they come up with the answers on their own than it is to give them answers. Collier himself is self-taught, and affirmed that he “enjoys the process of arriving at a place more than the place.”

Collier loves MIT and calls it his second home. He praised the intelligence of the students he taught and inspired last year, speaking about how their eyes buzzed as they thought and how at MIT, “people think beyond the surface level — up and down to other realms of things.”