By Kajal Shah
On Nov. 9, R. Luke DuBois visited the College to present “Sex, Lies and Data Mining” at the Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall. The speaker obtained a masters and a doctorate in music composition from Columbia University and currently teaches at New York University. A refreshing, unconventional speaker, DuBois did not rely on a specific presentation format or template, but took the audience through a maze of files containing images, videos and sound clips on his laptop. His career began as an engineering student in Columbia University where he fell in love with a music synthesizer and started his own band. However, his band did not captivate audiences and he tackled the problem using a computer to create visuals to project in the background. He wrote his own software that used a spectrum analyzer that projected the image of the musician in a line of thumbnails that moved based on the properties of the music playing.
He continued to create digital media programs, experimenting with sonograms to show images of sound through different dimensions, colors, shading and movements. Using the software, he could change the images by changing the sound or even change the sound by changing the image. Without the graphics it is difficult to visualize, but this tool was so powerful because by changing the image you can speed up the song or slow it down so that the melody and rhythm are lost but harmony is maintained. That leftover sound resembles the sound of ringing stuck in your ears after listening to music.
He applied his computational methods to analyze American culture by focusing in on three classic American canons: Billboard Hot 100, The Academy Awards and Playboy’s Playmate of the Month. For the first of the trio, he took every song in the list’s history and sped up the song into a total of one second, compiling all of the songs into one piece. Interesting trends turned up, such as the entire 1970s region being in the key of F. He then sped up every Academy Award winning film into a one-minute segment, combining each segment to create a 75-minute piece. The changes in filmmaking were apparent when the one-minute segment of Casablanca was more recognizable than the clip of Chicago because over the years the average shot time of a scene has decreased by more than half.
This shift is also a cultural phenomenon, since we now display OCD behaviors when listening to music — either repeating a song over and over again or listening to the beginning of a song before skipping to the next one. DuBois jokingly referred to his last piece as “time lapse pornography” and “the history of airbrushing,” a 50-second compilation of every Playmate’s image.
In a nation obsessed with lists, DuBois’s work gained recognition quickly and in 2008, the Democratic Party invited him to make a piece about democracy. He ultimately made a sculpture, “Hindsight is 20/20,” that serves as a time chart, containing a square for every president. Each square contained the top used words in each president’s State of the Union Address, with the most common words to the less common ones going in decreasing font size. Thus, George Washington’s largest scaled word was “gentlemen,” whereas George Bush’s most used word was “terror.” It was an insight into America’s history through rhetoric, with Lincoln’s word being “emancipation” and Truman’s being “unemployment.”
His latest project was a sequel to the presidential sculptures. The year was 2010 and a combination of the census and online dating inspired DuBois to create “A More Perfect Union.” He downloaded 19 million dating profiles from numerous dating sites and created a map to show where the shy individuals are located in our nation and where the wild ones and the funny ones are. He created numerous maps where the dark shade depicted a decreased concentration of that trait and a brighter shade depicted high concentrations, based on the descriptions used in the dating site profiles. He took this project a step further and replaced the names of cities with words used most often in dating profiles from that location. Thus, his map labeled New York City as “Now,” Seattle as “Heartbreak,” Trenton as “Train” and Camden as “Vodka,” with Hoboken falling right between the labels “Cynical” and “Annoying.”
DuBois continues to work in numerous fields, working with dancers to create spotlight graphics, as well as continuing to create portraits of Americans through creative means. He works in the music industry to create music videos as well as composing and performing as a laptop musician. His eclectic projects continue to reflect his fascination with time manipulation and information theory.