Larisa Berger

I'm making up a future for people behind screens
(large and small)
I studied CS and Creative Writing at MIT
(Spring 2012)
I like to listen
write
and play
weird music
I live and work in
Cambridge, MA.
So long MIT. It’s been a hell of a ride. 
Taking a hiatus this summer to figure out what’s next. 
I’ll still be chirping on Twitter and will be around the Boston/Cambridge/San Francisco/NY areas. Drop me a line, if you’re so inclined. 
Larisa

So long MIT. It’s been a hell of a ride. 

Taking a hiatus this summer to figure out what’s next. 

I’ll still be chirping on Twitter and will be around the Boston/Cambridge/San Francisco/NY areas. Drop me a line, if you’re so inclined. 

Larisa

Spring 2011-2012: Catalog of a Loss

Catalog of a Loss is a collection of sixty-two prose poems written within the past 
year and half. The work is printed on 4x6 cards.

Each prose poem can be read individually from a single card or the prose poems can be read in sequences. Each prose poem maps to at least one prescribed sequence that is visually indicated on the card(s). A line in bold anchors every card. Many are annotated excerpts from my reading for the year and a half that I spent in the head-space of this project. The reading list was compiled by my wonderful thesis advisor, Erica Funkhouser. Without her this work would have not been possible.

The work is a memoir-of-sorts. I began working on this piece in January 2011 knowing that I would write about my father who died in January 2007—ten years after he first began experiencing symptoms of dementia. 

Writing this work caused my own re-examination on life with my parents, life at MIT and life out in the world. The work examines my life at an intimate distance; the colors I used to encode the prose poems are taken from our family portrait.

The form also allowed me to emulate exactly how I was remembering my past: connections were formed and then blurred; random details were vivid and unforgettable while others completely disappeared.

The visual and conceptual elegance of the delicately colored lines serves as a kind of musical notation that underscores the irregular searching displayed in the corresponding poems.


The poems in Catalogue of a Loss forage Larisa’s experience both in school and at work; they describe the home she remembers from childhood and the new places she comes to call home; 
they sit in the presence of her abiding grief without flinching; they laugh with deep affection; they meditate serenely; 
they mourn chaotically; they stumble; they embrace; they reject and, most importantly of all, in their erratic, unscripted way, they move forward.  

- Erica Funkhouser, poet and lecturer at MIT 

The visual and conceptual elegance of the delicately colored lines serves as a kind of musical notation that underscores the irregular searching displayed in the corresponding poems.

The poems in Catalogue of a Loss forage Larisa’s experience both in school and at work; they describe the home she remembers from childhood and the new places she comes to call home;

they sit in the presence of her abiding grief without flinching; they laugh with deep affection; they meditate serenely; 

they mourn chaotically; they stumble; they embrace; they reject and, most importantly of all, in their erratic, unscripted way, they move forward.  

- Erica Funkhouser, poet and lecturer at MIT 

Seymour Papert, author of Mindstorms, observed the deterioration of math education in the United States. He recognized that most students did not have access to what he called, the “math world” but instead saw math as “a death march through formulae to be inscribed into your brain.” He created logo, a beginning programming language in which students described to the logo-turtle what to do. 

Many students that begin an instrument at an early age quit just before high school as they begin to develop their own listening tastes that do not coincide with their instrument repetoire. It’s no wonder since all that they’ve been exposed to is how to playback pieces from a musical score.   

I began experimenting with technology for music education with Eric Rosenbaum at the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group my sophomore year of college. Eric’s work showed me that music-making technology could immediately engage kids in ways that traditional music lessons fail them. He pointed me to Jeanne Bamberger’s work on using technology to develop a child’s music intuitions. 

Bamberger was interested in examining what informed a person’s musical tastes. She wanted to engage amateurs in articulating why they liked the music they did. Instead of front-loading students with the circle of fifths, Bamberger provided them with tools to disassemble their existing musical intutions. Following Papert’s example she created music logo that later evolved into Tune Blocks. Her research into the cognitive processes that served trained musicians fueled her notion that meaningful chunking of musical ideas was key to forming useful musical intuitions.

In my own life, I was finding Bamberger’s theories to ring true. I’d joined Prof. Evan Ziporyn’s Balinese gamelan, Gamelan Galak Tika my freshman year. While I’d never been exposed to Balinese music I quickly was able to chunk new melodies on instruments I’d never seen before. 

I arrived at these abilities through piano and violin and writing my own scores. But instruments at their core are interfaces, each with their own abstractions for creating sound. In an age where most of the music we listen to is made with a computer (at some point in its production process), then why are we not using technology to teach music?

An individual’s hearing is, perhaps paradoxically, a silent affair, so how can anyone know—how can we hear the hearing another has made?
Jeanne Bamberger

Jeanne Bamberger’s Tune Blocks was developed in the 90’s and released in 2000. The game provides blocks that users drag on screen.

Each block represents a chunk of a nursery song.

Students re-assemble tunes from the chunks they may not have heard previously as discrete. This deconstruction process of familiar tunes helps students to form more meaningful descriptions of music. 

Students re-assemble tunes from the chunks they may not have heard previously as discrete. This deconstruction process of familiar tunes helps students to form more meaningful descriptions of music. 

A descriptive dot-notation helps students to distinguish patterns visually before they can recognize them through listening.

The above dot-notation represents the music produced from the sequence of blocks we assembled in the first figure.
A B A

Pitch maps to the vertical axis and time to the horizontal.

The above dot-notation represents the music produced from the sequence of blocks we assembled in the first figure.

A B A

Pitch maps to the vertical axis and time to the horizontal.

The process students engage with using Tune Blocks is one that most music students don’t encounter until after years of study on an instrument.

Listening and assembling notations to represent what is heard enables listeners to communicate their own experience. Notations, standardized and invented, give access to our eyes. A valuable feedback loop forms in the process. The eyes can hear, enabling the ears to see and anticipate familiar idioms and patterns in music.

My teacher’s teacher, Dr. Pace, created the Pace piano method with the goal of teaching music literacy. One achieved true music literacy on piano when the eyes can hear, the fingers can see and the ears are sensitive to musical expression. 


Sifteo Cubes are an embedded cube gaming and education platform (originally known as siftables). 
I was matched with Sifteo Inc. through MIT’s Externship Program for IAP—MIT’s Independent Activities Period in 2011. I took a semester off from school to continue projects I started there. 
Dave Merrill, Sifteo co-founder, gave a TED talk on what started as an MIT Medialab research project. The talk generated lots of excitement and quickly went viral. Four months later, Dave and Jeevan Kalanithi launched Sifteo.

Sifteo Cubes are an embedded cube gaming and education platform (originally known as siftables). 

I was matched with Sifteo Inc. through MIT’s Externship Program for IAP—MIT’s Independent Activities Period in 2011. I took a semester off from school to continue projects I started there. 

Dave Merrill, Sifteo co-founder, gave a TED talk on what started as an MIT Medialab research project. The talk generated lots of excitement and quickly went viral. Four months later, Dave and Jeevan Kalanithi launched Sifteo.

From Bamberger’s “Tune Blocks” to my own “Tone Stacks”.

For my first music education themed Sifteo Cube game prototype I made Tone Stacks: a musical game for sandbox play and experimentation with chord tones.

As a pianists, chords are the framework that give your left-hand something to do. Block chords don’t take much thought, they serve as a texture to float on top of for the young improviser. Then come chord inversions.

Chord inversions are an often misunderstood concept. Inversions occur when chord-notes are rearranged to serve different roles. The common pedagogical phrase to describe forming an inversion from a triad is “root on top.” The concept was lost on me as a youngster because it was blatantly true that if you moved a note you changed its pitch, so how could we still call it the “root”!? 

On piano and the music staff you can never disconnect a note’s pitch from its function in a triad visually.
In ToneStacks I used two sets of graphics to decouple the two. The pieces of the birdhouse represent the different functions available to each not in a chord: top, middle and root. The birds represent the notes.

With these metaphors in place, I created a landscape for music learners of all levels.  

Tone Stacks: sandbox style play with chord-tones.
Building the BirdHouse forms a Triad.