image title

Q&A: ASU professor invites us to imagine a world without classical music

ASU professor Roger Mantie discusses importance, future of classical music.
April 14, 2017

Future of classical music is 'million-dollar question,' but ASU poised to answer with hundreds of concerts, recitals

headshot of ASU prof Roger Mantie

ASU School of Music Professor Roger Mantie

The future of classical music is anyone’s guess, but Arizona State University professor Roger Mantie invites us to consider a world without it.

“Imagine movies or video games without their classical music backgrounds,” Mantie said. “Star Wars without the John Williams soundtrack? Unthinkable!” 

ASU plays host to around 700 classical recitals in its concert halls each year, with students and visiting musicians delivering performances free and open to the public where they expand their creativity and hone their craft.  

To learn more, ASU Now reached out to Mantie, who teaches in the School of Music in the Herberger Institute of Art and Design and has performed professionally as both a jazz and classical saxophonist

Question: What makes classical music so important in today's society?

A: That’s a really loaded question. Every kind of music is important to those who love their music — i.e., pretty much everyone. In that sense, I don’t think we can say that classical music, or more precisely, Western classical music, is any more or less important than any other kind of music. In some senses, classical music is and always has been a “niche” art form, but to describe it only in terms of its popularity misses the point.

If we try to imagine a world without classical music, I think we can begin to have an idea of just how embedded it is in Western culture. Imagine movies or video games without their classical music backgrounds, for example. Star Wars without the John Williams soundtrack? Unthinkable! What kind of an impoverished world would we be living in without our concert halls, symphony orchestras, opera companies and so on?

Classical music isn't important because it is “better” than other musics, which it isn’t, but because of what it represents: a very special form of human engagement that tests the limits of the human imagination and possibility, both in terms of its performative and aesthetic aspects.

Q: What about those performative and aesthetic aspects do you find so intriguing?

A: There are all sorts of historically-derived norms and practices having to do with enculturation, training, relationships between musicians and audiences, formal reflexivity in the musical material and so on. These are not unique to classical music per se, but classical music’s heritage is vast and rich. I’m personally less interested in “preserving” these things (the “museum of musical works”) than in continuing to innovate and engage in the spirit of community and belonging.

Q: ASU often hosts student recitals at the school's concert hall. Can you explain what exactly those are? 

A: With up to five stages regularly in use, the School of Music presents around 700 concerts and recitals per year. Some of these are by larger ensembles, but the vast majority are by individual students (undergraduate and graduate) as part of their degree program. Most music students typically have to perform at least one solo recital, i.e., a performance of usually 30–90 minutes, made of several musical works they have studied during the year.

As one of many “best kept secrets” at ASU, these are free and open to the public. The quality is very high, often comparable to what you might hear on professional stages — keeping in mind that many School of Music students already perform professionally. Anyone could go to the School of Music almost any night of the week during the academic year and find some sort of performance to attend. 

Q: What do you see the future of classical music looking like? 

A: This is the million-dollar question in the classical music world right now. People with a vested interest in classical music, notably classical musicians themselves, have been asking questions about the future for quite some time. The question has become increasingly pressing due, in part, to the collapse of revenue streams from recorded music in the 21st century, something that has affected all working musicians regardless of genre.

The broader question, however, speaks not to popularity — arguably classical music has never really been “popular” in the broad sense — but to the vitality of any given musical practice. My personal opinion is that classical musicians in the 20th century were caught in a dilemma: what people wanted to hear were things like Schumann piano sonatas, Verdi operas, Beethoven string quartets, or Mozart symphonies, not “new” music. As a result, classical music stopped being a living, breathing art form.

The silver lining, as I see it, is that classical musicians in the 21st century are being more creative than ever. There are so many exciting things going on in the classical music world right now. My prediction is that the musical landscape of the 21st century will be defined by how it reinvented musical engagement of all types.

Q: Have you always been immersed in classical music? What first drew you to the genre? 

A: I learned to play the saxophone through the school band program. I grew up playing all sorts of music and didn’t really privilege one kind over the other. That’s something I try to promote with my own children. We listen to and play every style of music we can.

Most university music programs are based on the Western classical tradition. As a result, I was fully immersed in classical music. I often wonder if I would have loved classical music as much as I do if I were not so thoroughly immersed in it. 

Find upcoming recitals on the ASU Events website at And don't forget to check in at these and other events with Sun Devil Rewards, a free app that connects users to everything ASU. Earn "Pitchforks" for reading ASU news stories, checking in at events, taking polls, playing trivia games and more — and earn prizes that money can't buy (only Pitchforks can!). 

Connor Pelton

Communications Writer , ASU Now

image title

Pogo pack: ASU innovator creates wearable, trail tech — and we put it to the test

ASU engineer's latest exoskeleton device aims to help hikers carry heavy loads.
April 14, 2017

Thomas Sugar — creator of the running jet pack and the Spider-Man suit — designs exoskeleton to carry heavy loads

There are two truths in backpacking: You will labor like a pack mule, and you will savor views most people never see.

As a backpacker, you love your gear. It keeps you comfy, healthy and happy in some god-awful conditions. Without it, you would lose your way, your lunch and your life.

At the same time, you hate that murderous, spine-crushing, thigh-melting heap of misery strapped to your back. That’s true even after you’ve honed and mastered your own system over decades. You’ve stripped down, streamlined and efficiency-maximized every ounce hanging between your shoulder blades. And it’s still miserable.

Let’s face it: The technology hasn’t really changed since somebody thousands of years ago attached straps to a bag and threw it on their back, despite what the marketing departments of outdoor retailers claim. “Revolutionary XYZ suspension system! You’ll hardly notice it’s there!”

You’ll notice it’s there. What’s there is the crux of the problem and the laws of physics: There’s 40, 50, 60, even 90 pounds on your back that’s hard to ignore, much less make go away.

• • •

Thomas Sugar at Arizona State University’s Human Machine Integration Lab works on problems like this. A mechanical engineering professor, Sugar and his team build exoskeletons — wearable robotics — that help people perform tasks or survive harsh environments. The Army came to him and asked him to come up with a way to make carrying a heavy load easier.

Read more: Sugar to host, present at robotics conference in Phoenix

He came up with an oscillating backpack. There’s a load-bearing shoulder harness attached to a back frame like every backpack has, with a hip belt and sternum strap. On the back are powerful springs driving a plate up and down, mechanical components, a circuit board, battery and wiring.

After Sugar and his team came up with the concept and design, engineering associate Eduardo Fernandez built the pack in two weekends. The shoulder harness was from a Marine Force Recon pack.

The Pogo Suit was designed to decrease the metabolic cost of carrying a heavy infantryman’s load, around 70 to 120 pounds. The suit does this by oscillating the load up and down at just the right time. Components predict when the next step will take place in milliseconds. When done correctly, the load’s impulse force is minimized.

“Imagine when you’re running with a school backpack,” Sugar said, “just a small backpack, and it’s slamming down on your shoulders at the wrong time, and it doesn’t feel good. This one goes in the opposite direction. It oscillates to make the backpack feel lighter.”

• • •

Does it work? Is the Pogo Suit the Holy Grail of the trail? We wanted to field-test the prototype in the wilderness. This had to be a real trip, carrying real supplies and gear to an objective and back, not an afternoon dry run up an urban mountain with deadweight. Plus, it’s just cool to test something unique. It’s the only pack in the world that oscillates to make the wearer feel better, and there’s only one of them.

“I’ve never seen one of those before!” an excited hiker exclaimed on the trail. “What is that thing?”

We took the Pogo Suit out to the Peralta Trail in the Superstition Mountains east of metro Phoenix. Objective: a 2-mile climb with 1,400 feet of elevation gain up to Fremont Saddle, dropping down the other side until we found water and made camp, then out the next day.

Plug in a lithium ion battery, switch it on, and a light blinks before the Pogo Suit starts to react. A perforated plate on the back about 10 inches wide by 16 inches long is the load-bearing surface. This part rises up and down as you hike.

On flat surfaces, the pack’s mechanics didn’t make that much of a difference. On steep hills, it really came into its own. When you’re doing those steep thigh-burner steps, at the moment you’d really feel the full weight of the load pulling down and back, it’s like a giant hand coming along and lifting the pack off your back for a split second.

It’s a really amazing feeling, after decades of backpacking, to have a giant hand come down and hold your pack up at a crucial second. It’s completely unexpected. It’s like suddenly being able to fly or breathe underwater or grab a hot coal.

One quirk is the noise. It screeches and grinds and shrieks. Does it have issues? Yes. But it’s a prototype, not a market-ready product, so it’s not fair to say it doesn’t have this, that or the other thing.

close-up of Pogo Pack

A hiker tries out the Pogo Pack on the 
Peralta Trail in the Superstition Mountains.

Photos by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

“We thought it was an angry animal,” one woman said coming around the corner to where we took a break from the 92-degree heat.

Another issue is that it doesn’t stop doing its thing after you’ve stopped for a breather. Stand and pant, and it jerks you around like a marionette.

And the Pogo Suit didn’t fare well in the lab. Sugar and his team saw a metabolic cost decrease, but only enough to justify the suit’s 12-pound weight itself. The Army lost interest, but joked they’d buy it just to beat up recruits.

“The drawback was that it did make the backpack heavier,” Sugar said. “You have the motor and frame that oscillates back and forth. It’s not a commercial prototype at this point. … We would need to make it simpler and lighter.”

With improvements, is there a possibility oscillating packs will be sold at REI 10 years from now?

“Maybe, if you could get the costs down, and the battery technology,” Sugar said. “You’d have to somehow be able to charge those batteries for a couple of days. You could carry a solar panel or some fuel and a little generator and charge batteries that way.”

• • •

Packs such as these are the future. There is a cross-pollination between the military and outdoor gear makers. Sometimes soldiers adopt commercial gear. Outdoorsmen will buy military surplus and cannibalize it. (White-water rafting came about through a huge surplus of World War II rafts.)

“I think this could be used recreationally, like let’s say you wanted to hike some of the Grand Canyon,” Sugar said. “We have talked about a rental business for exoskeletons. They cost a lot right now, but if you rent them, you could hike the Grand Canyon and back out. I think that could be a first stage. That would be neat.”

Sugar will present his work — which includes a jet pack exoskeleton enabling a wearer to run a four-minute mile, a Spider-Man suit that can climb any surface, and a cool suit that lowers ambient body temperatures 20 degrees — this month at WearRAcon, the Wearable Robotics Association Conference organized by the Wearable Robotics Association, from April 19–21 in Phoenix. The conference will cover areas including health and fitness monitoring, recreation, business and military applications.

Sugar will have some of his suits on hand and will take questions. He’s pleased with the progress of his latest gadget, and he’s already thinking up improvements.

“I’m excited to hear on your hike it was really helping you go uphill,” Sugar said. He added later, “This was the first real-world attempt that anyone made.”

Videos by Ken Fagan/ASU Now