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Tunnel Vision: Juniata Professor Gives MRI Testing a Musical Tribute

(Posted January 9, 2006)

James Latten, assistant professor of music

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- For many patients who are subject to a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, the immobility, tight spaces and atonal intermittent noises are something to be endured, not celebrated. However, when percussionist Jim Latten had an MRI, he heard music.

"What I found out, laying in the machine, is that it produces some pretty catchy rhythms," says Latten, assistant professor of music at Juniata College. "I had to remind myself to hold still because I was starting to keep time to the sound. The only thing I could do was start to write the piece in my head as the test went on."

Latten and Juniata's Percussion Ensemble will debut his composition, "IMR: Impressions of Magnetic Resonance" at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 21 in the Suzanne von Liebig Theatre in the Halbritter Center for the Performing Arts on the Juniata campus.

The performance is free and open to the public.

The composition will be performed by nine percussionists as the first performance in the newly completed von Liebig Theatre. The theatre will feature seating designed in a concentric circular pattern to mimic the "tunnel" of the MRI machine. In addition, members of the ensemble will be playing above the audience on two separate balconies that ring the theatre's main performance space.

"There will be a variety of percussion instruments," Latten explains. "There will be tympani, tom-toms, unattached drum heads, and even one of the shovels used in the theatre's groundbreaking will be played as an instrument."

Latten, who is percussionist with the Altoona Symphony Orchestra, composed the piece using only percussion instruments. Because there are no other instruments to provide a melody, Latten had to design the sound of the composition to create tension and drama. In the middle of the writing process, Latten even received permission from J.C. Blair Hospital in Huntingdon to record their MRI machine in order to keep the composition true to life.

"Performing this piece will be memory that lasts a long time for me, and I hope for the ensemble," Latten says. The composition last 10 minutes. After the composition is performed, Latten will host a question-and-answer session about how he was inspired to write the musical exploration into medical technology. The group will then perform "IMR" as an encore.

Latten received five MRI's starting in 2001 for ailments that include a bad back, an ache he traces back to lifting bulky percussion equipment and carrying large drum sets in the many marching bands he has performed in. "It's sort of interesting that this piece about percussion might have grown out of a medical problem caused by my choice of career as a percussionist."

In the performance, each percussionist will be at stations throughout the second and third levels of the theatre. Members of the percussion ensemble include: Matt Booth, a sophomore from Allentown, Pa.; Greg Garcia, a Penn State graduate student from Boulder, Colo.; Scot Kemerer, a Penn State graduate student; Tom Kimmel, a senior from Canfield Ohio; Carolyn Romako, a sophomore from New Cumberland, Pa.; Doug Schunk, a Science in Motion mobile educator from Altoona, Pa.; Jennie Rinehimer, a sophomore from Berwick, Pa.; Amy Wade, a sophomore from Schuylkill Haven, Pa.; and Kevin Kasun, a senior from Altoona.

Latten has dedicated the performance to radiation and oncology professionals at J.C. Blair Memorial Hospital, Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, Pa., and Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.