In Tune with Science

Mixing computation and composition, an engineer-pianist probes the structure of music and performance decision-making.

As Elaine Chew’s fingers dance over the Steinway grand, it doesn’t look much like engineering research. Yet it all makes perfect sense when the USC industrial and systems engineer explains.

“A performance is the result of a series of decisions, either conscious or unconscious. Understand music, and you begin to understand how the human mind works,” says Chew, whose background is in operations research, the science of decision-making.

A senior investigator at the Integrated Media Systems Center of the USC School of Engineering, Chew specializes in building efficient and cognitively viable computer models for representing, analyzing, categorizing and comparing musical information. She believes that melody is the perfect medium for studying communication, creativity, human perception and cognition.

“Music, mathematics and engineering are all human attempts to describe and understand logic and patterns in the world,” she says. Her research involves building computer models that can probe more deeply into the structure of music and relate this structure to performance decisions. Insights from her studies, she believes, will have wide applications.

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., and raised in Singapore, Chew was an award winning pianist by her teens. Returning to America for her postsecondary education, she majored in music and computational mathematics at Stanford University before earning her master’s and Ph.D. in operations research from MIT.

For her doctoral dissertation, Chew proposed a computer representation of tonality, then built a three-dimensional model to mimic human ability to find keys and determine modulations in Western music. Her model has been used successfully to develop real-time algorithms for music perception and cognition.

In other research, Chew has focused on computational finance, computational biology and mathematical programming – all the while balancing her academic career with an active piano performance schedule – and sometimes finding ways to combine the two.

In a recent cross-disciplinary project she unveiled “Flying Sonics,” a multichannel electroacoustic experiment blending two grand pianos and a series of computer-generated and computer-controlled sounds. While Chew and USC Thornton School of Music pianist Dennis Thurmond played two grand pianos on the stage of USC’s acoustically exquisite Alfred Newman Recital Hall, IMSC colleague Chris Kyriakakis used multichannel immersive audio technology to generate accompanying sounds that were “dynamically placed” throughout the hall. The sounds produced by the pianos interacted with the computer-controlled sounds “darting and spiraling through space” says Chew. The experiment, she believes, “pushes the boundaries of an interactive technology-acoustic partnership in concert [and] opens up new musical realms for exploration.”

Chew is also active in Music of Changes, a new organization consisting largely of USC faculty and students dedicated to presenting contemporary classical music. At one of the group’s inaugural concerts in the Herbert Zipper Concert Hall of the Colburn School of the Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles, Chew played selections from MIT composer Peter Child’s “Doubles” – a bi-tonal piece she commissioned based on her own favorite Chinese and Malay folk songs. Chew had notated and faxed Child the melodies from several folk songs she knew from childhood.

“I am not a composer,” she says, “but I do like to work closely with composers on their creations.”

As children, Chew and her siblings had competed to see who could sing the folk song “Spring Song” fastest. So Child composed that section in a rush of fleeting notes. The “Cockatoo” is characterized by a series of playful, staccato notes to suggest a bird hopping. Two other Malay melodies were the basis for “Riversong” and “Sampan Variations,” which later melt into a splash of ragtime.

Maybe it was the Steinway grand – which she compared to “smooth, velvety chocolate” – that made Chew smile throughout her performance. “I was thinking of the words that I sang with my brother and sister. It makes me happy,” she says.

But maybe awareness of the conscious logic and patterns of her musical decision-making also contributed to Chew’s pleasure.

– Bob Calverley

Illustration by Tim Bower

Violence and Public Health
Dr. Tough-Love

He’s been featured in scores of articles and broadcasts. The Los Angeles Times ran a major profile. Dan Rather interviewed him for “60 Minutes II.” What makes USC trauma surgeon Juan Asensio such a pioneer, though, isn't the life-saving techniques and scientific studies for which he's world- famous; it’s his tough-love technique for stanching violence itself. Growing up in a squalid Havana neighborhood and coming of age on Chicago’s mean streets, Asensio sees violence as the gravest public-health threat to inner-city youth. His antidote: a grim educational show-and-tell of gunshot and stab wounds and a troupe of real-life trauma survivors he takes on the road to high schools and juvenile detention centers. “You explain this!” a Times article quoted Asensio upbraiding a group of listless teenage inmates, his finger pointing to a slide of an infant’s bullet-pierced brain. Some 12,000 at-risk youths have heard similar harangues. Millions more will get a sample when “60 Minutes II” airs a session in which Asensio’s former patient, ex-gang member Maria Reyes, describes her near-death experience after catching multiple shots from an automatic rifle.

“I am not a social worker,” says Asensio. “I am an academic trauma surgeon.” But simply repairing the mayhem isn’t enough, he feels. “I want to have an impact in preventing some of these kids from becoming the victims of violence that I see every day.”

Photo by Don Milici


Daniel J. Epstein ’62 and Jeffrey H. Smulyan ’69, JD ’72 have been elected to the university’s Board of Trustees. Epstein is founder, chairman and CEO of the San Diego-based ConAm Group, among the country’s top 10 apartment management/ownership firms. He serves on the executive committee of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate Development, the Board of Governors of the USC Alumni Association and the Board of Councilors of the USC School of Engineering, and chairs the advisory committee of the engineering school’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. Smulyan is chairman, president and principal shareholder of Emmis Communications Corp., the $650 million media company he founded in 1981. The Indianapolis-based business owns and operates 23 radio stations, including KZLA and KPWR in Los Angeles; operates 15 television stations from Orlando to Honolulu; and publishes six city and regional magazines, including Los Angeles, Texas Monthly and Atlanta. A member of the Board of Councilors of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and the USC Law School, Smulyan is a past regional director of USC’s Midwest Alumni Club and past president of the Indianapolis Alumni Club.

Todd R. Dickey JD ’93 has been named vice president and general counsel at USC, overseeing the offices of the treasurer, comptroller, compliance and audit services, as well as the Office of the General Counsel, which he has headed since 1999. Dickey joined the university in 1996 as an attorney in the Office of the General Counsel. Previously, he was an associate at the Los Angeles law firm of Latham & Watkins, practicing in the areas of real estate, corporate transactions and litigation.

Carolyn Webb de Macias, who has served as senior associate provost at USC since 1997, has been named vice president for external relations, responsible for neighborhood relations, local and state government relations, civic and corporate relations, cultural relations and federally sponsored service programs in education and economic development. Prior to joining USC, she was chief of staff to Los Angeles councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and regional vice president for external affairs at Pacific Bell.

Brenda Barnes has been named president of USC Radio, responsible for KUSC, the university’s all-classical music station, as well as a national classical music broadcast service in collaboration with Colorado Public Radio and the development of partnerships with other Southern California arts organizations. As KUSC’s general manager, a post she has held since 1997, she is credited with resetting the station’s course after a failed experiment in eclectic programming left it in debt and losing listeners. KUSC has since doubled the power of its broadcasting signal, increased its membership and steadily rebuilt its audience. Barnes holds music degrees from North Carolina, Michigan State and Notre Dame.

J. Michael Thompson has joined USC as vice provost and dean of admission and financial aid, directing the university’s total enrollment effort: managing and planning student recruitment, admission and financial aid policies, student application processing and student aid. He comes to USC from UC Santa Cruz, where he had been associate vice chancellor of outreach, admission and student academic services. He was previously registrar at Loyola Law School, UCLA and UC Irvine. Thompson replaces Joe Allen, who died last year of a cerebral hemorrhage.

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