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NCSA Student Spotlight: Rishabh Rajagopalan

Rishabh Rajagopalan is currently a junior studying computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has been a Students Pushing Innovation (SPIN) intern at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) since summer 2018, where he works with mentor Sever Tipei on the Digital Instrument for Sound Synthesis and Composition (DISSCO) project. He is also a Fiddler Undergraduate Fellowship Awardee.

Jason Williams sat down with Rishabh to discuss his work within the SPIN program.

How did you hear about SPIN and why did you apply?

I’ve always had a passion for computer science and music. NCSA listed their SPIN projects a few months before the summer SPIN internship program, so I was looking them up, and found a really interesting one. Since I’m an underclassman, I had the freedom to apply, so that’s what I did. I was a SPIN intern for summer 2018 and got extended for the 2018-2019 academic year.

Can you give me an overview of what the DISSCO project is?

So it’s all about this piece of software called DISSCO. This was developed jointly by Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois a few decades ago. Essentially it’s a software for doing complex probabilistic sound composition. What’s interesting is underneath the data structure is a piece of music modeled in a directed graph data structure, so this design principle makes it possible to use cool computer science and information theory algorithms to create cool music pieces using the cluster.

This is different from many of the projects at NCSA because a lot of other projects are directed at solving a particular problem. This is different; we are trying to produce a platform to enable composers. This is a creative platform where people can create in a sophisticated and intelligent way. So, a composer who understands what partials and waves are, and who has a better in-depth understanding of the music side of things, can use this to create things they normally wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

What kind of work do you do on DISSCO?

DISSCO is divided into three main modules and the modules have different roles. They are linked, but they can be worked on independently. One is called LASSIE, which is the user interface. Then we have LASS, which is the synthesis and the automatic notation part. Then it’s CMOD, the composition module, which is where all of the logic and code is. It’s the main place where you can implement algorithms, and that’s where I’m working.

My job is to extend the existing code base so that it makes possible the creation of so-called manifold compositions. So what it would be is a piece of music, that, at a high level it would be like a piece of music that evolves. The way we wanted to do it was to try and do it with a more objective, mathematical, and computer science way. So we use concepts from information theory, like entropy, information gain, aesthetic measures derived from information theory, and also artificial intelligence. We use that on the existing graph structure to produce cool things.

The project has gained international attention. Can you tell me about that?

The international response to the work we’ve been doing has been positive, so we’ve been given the opportunity to submit an abstract at the International Music and Science Symposium in Turkey and Sever is going there to give an oral presentation on the project. Also, the Diffrazioni Multimedia Festival in Italy is where we submitted a poster and Sever is going there to play a few pieces of music using our software.

How has working at NCSA impacted you personally?

It’s been great. From an academic standpoint, we have these lighting talks every week so we are exposed to things that other people were working on and that leads to more in-depth conversations if you are interested in it. Also, I think a big takeaway is the experience of starting a project and taking it to completion or document some sort of contribution. I think that’s a skill that’s important.

What are your future plans after you complete your undergraduate degree?

I think after I’m done with my undergraduate studies I want to pursue a graduate degree in computer science.

Is there anything else you would like me to know?

I won the Fiddler Undergraduate Innovation Fellowship because of my work on this project. My work fell into the category and I was nominated by Olena Kindratenko, and was awarded it. The interesting part is that there was a lunch event where Mr. Fiddler came down from California and we had a chance to talk to him and give a quick pitch on what we had done.

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