‘Mr. Distinguished Researcher of the Year,’ for computer music

By Priyanka Mehra

Ajay Kapur. (Photo: Courtesy, Ajay Kapur)
Ajay Kapur, a 24-year old Indian born in the United States, was awarded the ‘Mr. Distinguished Researcher of the Year’ award in the field of Computer Music in 2004. Presented at the International Conference of Computer Music in Miami, FL, this international award is given to researchers who have advanced the field of combining music and technology.

Kapur and his team won the award for their work on ‘Digitizing North Indian Performance,’ a press release said.

Kapur is currently a Ph.D. student at University of Victoria –– an institute for advanced study on a Pacific island in British Columbia, Canada, off the coast of Vancouver and Seattle. He completed a bachelor’s of science and engineering in computer science at Princeton University, while studying music theory from all over the world. At Princeton, he met his mentor and guru, Professor Perry R. Cook, who enlightened him with his own computer music inventions such as a sensor-based coffee mug that triggers physical models of any instrument (shakers, trumpet, sitar, etc.) off his laptop. This introduced Kapur to the field of his dreams. In 2000, Kapur began building his first instrument, the Electronic Tabla Controller (ETabla).

Using microcontroller technology (the same devices used in cell phones and digital cameras), he began to embed a computer within the traditional north Indian tabla, a pair of drums used for accompaniment in Hindustani classical music. “I am trying to capture the movement of the human hand during tabla performance and use the information to synthesize sounds and visual feedback on my laptop,” said Kapur.

“This is similar to a digital keyboard, which allows a piano player to perform with any sound they desire, except my invention is for tabla players, extending the possibilities of sound production,” he said.

When beginning his research in designing the ETabla, Kapur e-mailed tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain, asking him where he should learn to play and study the traditional tabla.

Hussain pointed Kapur to his school he set up in memory of his father, the Ustad Allah Rakha Institute of Music in Mumbai. Kapur thus bought his ticket to India and began studying at the Institute with Pandit Rakesh Kumar Parihast, one of Hussain’s top students, and the one responsible for teaching all the students at the Institute all year long. Kapur continues to visit India to study with his guru in order to learn as much as possible for his research.

(Compiled from a press release)