Electronic musician’s offbeat approach melds sound with computer science

Experimental artist Sam Pluta: ‘I wanted to be able to invent my own type of music’

Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community.

Like many other musicians, Sam Pluta can get lost in performance—head bobbing, fingers flying, shoulders shimmying. But on stage, he isn’t strumming a guitar or pounding a drum set. His instrument of choice is a computer.

This unusual approach helps explain the popularity of Pluta’s classes at the University of Chicago: Unconstrained by genre, they provide students a fitting creative outlet on a campus that blurs the lines between disciplines.

“For all the successful musicians I know, it’s not just their music education that has made them who they are,” said Pluta, an assistant professor in the Department of Music. “It’s some other thing. For me, it was the fusion of music and computer science that created my career.”

A musical latecomer who began taking piano lessons at 18, Pluta’s journey to UChicago marks the unlikely confluence of two paths: One charted by a person who grew up tinkering with computers, and the other by someone who used those skills to turn passion into vocation.

Though he plays in concert halls, Pluta’s electronic work is more experimental than what often fills those spaces, veering closer to aural assault than soothing melody. Imagine, if you will, a less radio-friendly version of industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails. “If you take any of my sounds and added a beat, it would sound like 1990s Trent Reznor,” Pluta said.

Watching him perform feels a bit like watching someone play a video game. Take, for example, a recent set at UChicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. Accompanied by a cornet player and a flautist, Pluta shuffled his hands between a flashing iPad, a joystick and a manta—a wood and metal touchpad covered with hexagons.

What Pluta controlled was the Live Modular Instrument, a software instrument of his own design that allows him to take the musical inputs from the performers around him, and spit them back out as something that might sound completely foreign. Available for anyone to download and use, LMI is the result of more than a decade of development.

“At the time, there weren’t software systems that could manipulate sounds in real time the way I wanted to,” he said. “I wanted to be able to invent my own type of music, and the way to do that was to come up with my own software structure.”

In addition to his duties at UChicago, Pluta serves as the technical director for Wet Ink Ensemble. Last December, the group earned a place on The New York Times’ picks for the best classical music in 2018—a list that also included Jaap van Zweden, who leads the New York Philharmonic, and renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. This past April, Pluta won a Guggenheim Fellowship that will help support his work with Wet Ink.

Pluta is a member composer of the ensemble, but his performance repertoire also features a healthy amount of improvisation. Collaborating with the freedom to go off-script, Pluta said, helps him tap into a specific level of awareness. As important as preparation can be, the process of making art depends also on the ability to block out the inner critic, to “allow your mind to go to a place of pure creativity.”

“There’s always this moment right before you play, where you have to just let yourself go,” Pluta said.

An unexpected path to music

Exploration for exploration’s sake is a recurring theme of his career. After graduating from Portsmouth High School in New Hampshire, Pluta made his way to the opposite coast. He wanted to study computer science, and picked Santa Clara University because it was in the middle of Silicon Valley. In doing so, Pluta paved himself an unexpected path.

Given that he had no prior training, Pluta doesn’t think he would have become a composer or performer had he landed on a campus with a music conservatory. At Santa Clara, however, he could try new things—free from the pressure of comparing himself to students who had spent their whole lives with their instruments.

One day, an instructor purchased a Pro Tools music system and essentially handed Pluta the keys. Pluta had already been writing acoustic music, but toying around with the software showed him a way to meld music with his love of computers. During his senior year, he took another step forward in his musical growth, combining instruments and electronics to score a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Pluta spent a year working as a software programmer after college, but the musical itch wouldn’t fade. Eventually, he went back to school, obtaining graduate degrees in music from the University of Texas, the University of Birmingham and Columbia University. Along the way, he began collaborating and touring with other performers.

“I love music because it takes me to this other mental space,” Pluta said. “It’s the thing that gives me access to my totally focused, non-conscious mind. A lot of people do that through mindfulness meditation, or through painting or through exercise. Music is pretty good for me that way.”

In 2016, Pluta joined the UChicago faculty. Since then, he’s drawn students with an informal teaching style that makes complicated information accessible. He also gives them a chance to create their own music, starting with anything from conventional instruments to electronic sounds to ambient noises. The classes have sparked so much demand that, last year, the University of Chicago’s Women’s Board provided funds to double the size of the electronic music studio space in Goodspeed Hall, which houses the Department of Music.

Clay Mettens, a PhD candidate and former course assistant for Pluta, described the classes as “transformative. After just ten weeks, students are able to describe sound in a way that would have been inconceivable to them before.”

Fourth-year Reiny Rolock was an early convert. When he was 15, he began attending summer music programs at the Walden School in Dublin, New Hampshire, where Pluta was an instructor. It was the first time Rolock, a classically trained French horn player, was exposed to electronic music. “It was kind of a shock,” he said.

By happy coincidence, Pluta joined the UChicago faculty during Rolock’s sophomore year. Now, he credits Pluta for pushing his compositions in new directions—focusing more on sounds than on notes.

This fall, those outside of Pluta’s classroom might be similarly surprised. On Sept. 27, the musician will help open the Chicago Sound Show, organized in partnership with UChicago’s Smart Museum of Art. Featuring new works from Pluta and eight other artists, the on-campus sound art installation will use UChicago’s architectural features to explore the relationship between sound and space.

Pluta understands that many of his students won’t pursue music full time. When he was their age, he didn’t expect to either. But he still wants to help them discover the joy of music, of pushing boundaries while expanding their own command of technology.

“You can’t be creative without that technical knowledge,” he said. “But I want my students to be able to apply that technical knowledge, and to do it in a way that feels liberating.”