Electro-acoustics: Bowers fuses technology and art

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As they set up the computers, cables and software necessary to perform their electro-acoustic composition "Cream," the students in Greg Bowers' introduction to computer music class ran into a glitch. The strap designed to hold a sensor over the heart of Amanda Costigan '10 would not adjust. Positioning of the sensor that would drive the beat of the dance song was critical.

The problem occurred after Costigan came down with a medical condition that elevated the rate of her heartbeat. As a result, it was decided that the strap would be affixed to her and not to Wes Northam, as originally planned.

"Either I was going to run up and down the stairs in order to get my heart-rate up to tempo, or we would just strap it on the person with walking pneumonia," Northam, a neuroscience major, explained.

After a few minutes, the sensor was properly positioned and secured, and "Cream" made its debut.

The composition class, music 281, is one of the hardest to get into at the College--last year 75 students signed up for the 15 vacancies. Applicants seek opportunities to engage in research about and to actively manipulate the digital environment that informs much of their lives. The class comprises representatives of numerous majors; music majors are a notable minority.

For Bowers, assistant professor of theory and composition in the music department, the prospect of teaching electro-acoustic music to non-music majors at first seemed intimidating. However, he discovered that the multidisciplinary talents fueled by the enthusiasm of the students actually led him down intriguing paths as he continued building his own digital compositional repertoire.

"Part of the class is compositional, or creative, based," Bowers explained. "We start at the beginning of the 20th century, before there even was electricity, and look at avant-garde compositional practices. We go through the century, and we look at pre-computer electronic music, which is its own genre with its own techniques. Then we look at digital music. Finally we finish up by doing things that are live-interactive, and we kind of set the stage for the future."

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During the semester, students get a chance to look at various applications for computer music. They gain experience in editing and sequencing using software applications such as Logic or Max/MSP. They also receive instruction in peripheral issues, including choosing and placing microphones.

Yet, despite the prerequisite interaction with computer-based technologies, Bowers steers students away from over-reliance on the machines.

"The equipment is their mind; the computer is a fancy pencil," Bowers explained. He stresses to his students that they need to visualize away from their desks or their laptops. "You don't want the computer to tell you what to do. If you're going to use technology, you should really examine the transformative power of technology."

Indeed, one way he measures when students have gotten "over the hump," as it were, is when they realize they do not have to create sounds that mimic those they have heard on commercial programs.

An advantage for the instructor is that creative projects in computer music do not rely on notes or scores--he does not have to train students to write in clefs or chords. He also benefits from close association with the College's Swem Media Center.

"Between Troy Davis, director of the center, and the staff there, they really keep things running, so I don't have to spend a lot of time keeping on top of things involving use of technology," Bowers said. "The class truly is a collaborative effort."

For the students, the chance to create and perform original compositions emanating from assignments is a highlight of the course.

"It's another way of making sound, another way of putting sound out there," said Costigan, an English major. In class she felt as if she were forced to learn three or four separate instruments at once. She described the composition process as envisioning a result and "making the possibility for it to happen."

"I really like the idea of a dance song that was controlled by the dancer, where it was more of an interaction between the music and the dancer than just the music is there and the dancer is responding," she said in reference to the sensor assignment. "What if the music answered back?"

"Sometimes it's nice to actually have something completely surprising happen, to let the technology go nuts and  create something you've never seen before, or heard," added Northam.

The class, along with the interdisciplinary use of technology to creaqte art, points toward a powerful way to expand understanding of the liberal arts, according to Bowers.

"I think this is a major opportunity for William & Mary," he said. "We have just begun to think about the idea of integrating technology across the disciplines and the arts. We are at the infancy stages, and I would like it to go a lot further because there's tons of enthusiasm out there among the faculty and definitely among the students."