GeAcMus Project: the promise of interdisciplinarity

Of the pair heading up the GeAcMus project, Patricio de la Cuadra is responsible for acoustics and wind instruments. For him, the chair’s interdisciplinary approach is an excellent opportunity to open new avenues of research and to make progress with what is known about the instrument/instrumentalist pairing.

This Chilean is a flautist, engineer and professor in acoustics at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, where he founded a research center on audio technology. By joining the GeAcMus chair, for which he is a senior co-lecturer alongside Fabrice Marandola, Patricio de la Cuadra was far from being in unchartered territory. “I wrote my thesis on musical acoustics at Stanford, but I carried out the main part of my research in Paris at the Ircam institute under a researcher who, today, is heavily involved in the GeAcMus project: Benoît Fabre, from the Lutheries – Acoustique – Musique (LAM, Stringed Instruments – Acoustics – Music) team. At the time, I even worked with Fabrice Marandola on the subject of instrumental gestures. The acousticians of Ircam had been asked for help by a team of ethnomusicologists, including Marandola, in analyzing how female Uldeme flautists in Cameroon play with two flutes and control the sound of their instruments with their breathing.”


Longstanding interest in instrumental gestures

That was 15 years ago, and Patricio de la Cuadra had not seen Fabrice Marandola since then. However, on returning to his country, he continued to collaborate regularly with the LAM team, particularly concerning instrumental gestures: “It is an exciting subject. Acousticians first sought to establish a model for how instruments work. How do they produce sound, from a technical point of view? The fact remains that, without an instrumentalist, the instrument does not produce any sound. Most of the time, it is the musician who is the most important parameter, which is where the interest in understanding the mechanics of the interaction between and instrumentalist and the instrument comes in.”

Needless to say that when Sorbonne University offered him the chance to co-lead the GeAcMus chair, the Chilean researcher didn’t miss a beat: “It was an extraordinary opportunity. Not only is France the country with the solidest expertise in musical acoustics in the world and has produced some of the best flautists, but it is also an interdisciplinary chair. It is not about launching projects that we already know how to do, but about opening new avenues thanks to having dialogue between acousticians and other disciplines, ethnomusicology and musicology in particular, the expertise of which are invaluable in enabling us to ask the right questions.”  At the beginning of 2016, Patricio de la Cuadra and his team thus launched three collaborative projects dedicated to wind instruments.


How does a bagpiper control his or her instrument?

The first project was on the bagpipes. Contrary to the flautist, the bagpiper does not directly control the sound of the instrument through the respiratory system, but by regulating the air pressure within the bagpipe bag via the arm. Such a mechanism has, until now, hardly featured as the subject of a scientific paper. The aim is, therefore, to study how the instrumentalist uses the arm action to express his or her musical intent. This project combines the expertise of an ethnomusicologist and an expert bagpiper with that of GeAcMus acousticians and biomechanical experts at UTC in an analysis of physical parameters: air pressure in the bag, the flow of air exhaled by the musician, the force of the arm, the sound produced by the instrument, and so on.


Reproducing and optimizing a late 19th-century Western flute

The two other projects seek to develop two different types of flute by involving all stakeholders. The aim is to better understand the interactions between each link in the chain (instrument manufacturing, the instrumentalist playing, the musical properties being sought, etc.) as well as to achieve the desired result with more certainty and more easily.

One of the projects came about on the request of an instrument manufacturer, which was asked by flautists to reproduce a late 19th-century flute, the last examples of which are reaching the end of their useful lives. This flute possessed a special timbre, which needs to be preserved while also improving the acoustics and ergonomics of the instrument. For this reason, the chair is going to bring together:

  • Musicologists, who will reproduce the musical context of the era (Which timbre was being sought? How was the flute played?);
  • Acousticians, who will develop a physical model of the flute, taking into account the instrumentalists’ gestures and the expected musical qualities, and will then digitize this to virtually simulate and test the instrument;
  • The flute manufacturer, which will bring its expertise in instrument manufacturing and will develop a real prototype once the virtual instrument is complete;
  • And, finally, flautists, for their playing ability on the instrument and for testing it.



Expanding the musical potential of notch-flutes

The other project looks into conceiving a notch-flute, which is more attractive for today’s composers. Patricio de la Cuadra explains that, “Notch-flutes (like the Latin American quena) are limited to this type of music. Our aim is to expand on their musical possibilities by offering innovative forms of axial canal (the inner pipe of a flute) and materials. However, once again, this is all about preserving the identity of the sound a notch-flute produces.” In the same way, this project is therefore going to mobilize musicologists, musicians, acousticians and instrument-making materials specialists.

For Patricio de la Cuadra, however, these three “little projects” are only the beginning: “This is a way of forging bonds between disciplines, which, until now, have had little contact. But, for me, the real challenge is to develop an interdisciplinary network and find cross-cutting issues that will, ultimately, enable much more ambitious collaborative projects to be launched. This is all of great interest to this chair.”


Read the article on senior professor of the chair, Fabrice Marandola

Read GeAcMus provides a new approach to musicology



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