Program: Ph.D. in Informatics, music informatics track, 2019
Hometown: Geneva, Switzerland
Passion: Using technology to create new possibilities for innovation in music
Sanna Wager is on a musical journey.
Growing up in Geneva, Switzerland, music was a part of Wager’s life. Her grandparents sold pianos. Her father had a hobby as a jazz musician, playing gigs whenever he got the opportunity. Naturally, Wager’s love of music blossomed, and she grew up playing the piano.
A hand injury at the age of 17 knocked her off the ivories for a couple of months, but it also opened her world to other instruments. She settled on the bassoon, and it became her passion. Even after her hand healed, she stuck with the woodwind.
“The music theory part, like sight reading, that translated,” Wager says. “But using air was a completely new concept for me. There was a lot of experimenting there.”
She was good enough to pursue her undergraduate work in bassoon performance at IU’s Jacobs School of Music, and it was there that she started to experiment a bit more.
“Beyond the bassoon, I was also interested in math and statistics,” says Wager, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in informatics at SoIC. “I ended up taking a computer science class. My future advisor happened to be teaching that. I worked on an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates project with him, and I discovered the field of music informatics.”
Wager’s interests are many. She’s currently working on an audio reconstruction project in which she tries to improve low-quality audio by inserting sounds from a large database. She also is studying ways in which technology can produce higher-quality music without creating massive files. Although some say they can’t tell much of a difference when the quality of music is improved, Wager believes once listeners are exposed to an improved level of sound, they’ll never go back.
“There is a lot of progress happening right now,” Wager says. “For example, Spotify now offers high-quality streaming so you can have 32-bit audio vs. 16-bit audio. I started listening to so much more music online when that was possible. Low-quality or compressed audio, to me, just doesn’t have the same impact. When people are exposed to the very high-quality music, they tend to really appreciate it more.”
She also wants to find a way to use computers to help performers get new insight into their work in practice and performance. It can sometimes be difficult for performers to judge how they sound, especially when their instrument is just one part of a larger whole.
“One of the most frustrating issues for a musician is an inefficient practice session,” Wager says. “Practice doesn’t make perfect. It makes permanent. So if you practice something wrong, you’re causing damage to yourself. An app that can help track practice and make it more efficient or visualize complex aspects of music, such as expressive phrasing, or even use of air in the case of wind instruments, would be interesting.”
How could such an app help?
“I always believe I’m too loud when I play the bassoon, especially if I’m in an ensemble,” Wager says. “The area right around the bassoon section can be very quiet. It’s very easy to feel like you’re so loud, but people would tell me that they couldn’t hear me well enough. It will be interesting to develop an app that will somehow give feedback on how loud I was.”
Wager hopes to gain the technological expertise to develop that app. She also aims to create opportunities for more musicians to tackle computing, which will allow them to participate in technological innovation.
“It was a great experience to realize there’s this whole world of computing,” Wager says. “I thought there were many other musicians like me who didn’t grow up thinking much about technology. There are a few musicians who are very tech savvy and enjoy doing recording or synthesizing, but many musicians just haven’t spent much time with computers. I thought maybe if I come from that background and take computer science classes and work on programming, I can relate to these people, and hopefully when I think about apps and tools, I’ll keep in mind what it’s like to not be computer savvy.”