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Every body’s an instrument for this sound pioneer at UCSD

By Megan Spence

Artist and musician Trevor Henthorn’s next performance should really leave a mark.

In two weeks, Henthorn will be tattooed live on a Hollywood stage, all in the name of his art. The 39-year-old graduate and current employee of UCSD will be tattooed as part of a performance art piece that will attempt to extract audio from the human body.

This will be done by placing tiny microphones in needles used to pierce and tattoo the performers. As the performers are poked, the microphones will pick up sound waves that will then be made into music.

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Henthorn is an unconventional artist. A native of Mill Valley, Calif., he picked up his first instrument at the age of 10.

“It was the standard thing to do in elementary school,” Henthorn said. “You know, they say, ‘OK, pick an instrument.’ And my mom said, ‘Well, we can borrow this trumpet from a friend.’ That’s how I headed down that path.”

It was the beginning of a long, rich journey. After years of playing the trumpet and working at Renaissance festivals where he learned to make his own drums - which he still does today - Henthorn enrolled at UCSD in 1985. It was there that he combined his passion for electronic music with his natural engineering abilities by majoring in engineering physics with an emphasis on acoustics.

“I always thought I’d grow up and become some sort of electrical engineer,” he said.

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After graduation, Henthorn started working for the engineering department at the school, and then for the sound department as a programmer, where he met Professor Diana Deutsch, who would become his co-collaborator for many years. Deutsch, a professor in the psychology department at UCSD, first crossed paths with Henthorn in 1989, when he worked as a production assistant.

The two produced their first compilation compact disc together in 1995.

“That was a lot of work,” Henthorn said. “Not only is it an audio CD, but it’s this booklet with all these fancy diagrams and formulas and musical notation. Back in ’95, things were more complicated than they are now. But just to get these colors on the cover - musical notation in color - it was literally hundreds of hours of work.”

The two paired up again in 2003 to produce another compact disc.

Henthorn left UCSD briefly but returned three years ago and has been working as the resident computer programmer in the music department ever since. He and Deutsch remained in contact and are currently working together on a study of perfect pitch.

The two are particularly interested in the correlation between perfect pitch and tone language. Henthorn’s job is to analyze audio, a tedious task he called immensely time consuming.

“It’s a lab project that involves a lot of collaborating with others,” Deutsch said, “but Trevor’s contribution is very valuable.”

Henthorn is much more than an academic. The ambitious artist is also the founder of Pan Handler Production, a 15-year-old company that strives to assist independent bands with the production of their albums.

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“When we started,” he said, “there were studios in Hollywood that were charging $1,000 an hour to do audio, and I found a niche that was working with independent bands doing digital audio production.”

One of those bands was Henthorn’s own industrial group, Sweat Engine. Starting in 1989 with only two members, the band found immediate success. After picking up a drummer and opening for groups such as Nine Inch Nails in 1991, the band found itself with growing opportunities they didn’t initially anticipate.

“We got so big so fast in ’91 and ’92 that you play bigger and bigger shows, and going back to playing little coffee shops is uninteresting,” he said.

But Henthorn was hesitant to accept the growing fame. Though the group was given offers by mainstream labels, they declined, opting instead to take the independent road. They haven’t played a live show since 1997, but they continue to produce albums under the Pan Handler label.

“I don’t know if it was the right decision or not,” Henthorn said, “but I look at the most recent projects that I’ve done, and there’s no way I could have produced these things under a mainstream label. They just wouldn’t have done it.”

One of those projects is a solo album that seeks to poke fun at Henthorn’s everyday life. Purposely made to look like it was made in the 1970s, the electronic music on the album requires much of the musical technology of today to produce. It includes narration that provides inside jokes only engineers would understand.

Deutsch admires Henthorn’s wide range of skills.

“He spreads his wings and interacts with an awful lot of people on many different projects,” Deutsch said. “It’s extraordinary that he’s able to do all these things and do them so well.”

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For more information about Henthorn’s music, visit trevor.henthorne.org.