William & Mary

Computers Can Remove Drudgery, But Can't Replace Musical Creativity

SerghiStrange bedfellows? Sometimes, but it's better to think of technology and music as dancing partners-the kind of dancing partners that take turns leading.

Consider, for instance, the case of Beethoven's piano sonatas, which not only evolved as the instrument changed, but which also served as significant agents themselves in driving the evolution of the modern pianoforte. There's even a report of Beethoven cracking in half a piano that was insufficiently evolved to stand the strain of his chords.

A similar co-evolutionary dynamic has been developing since the advent of MIDI in the 1980s. MIDI, an acronym for musical instrument digital interface, is a communications protocol that allows electronic musical instruments and computers to communicate. MIDI has increased the tempo of the technology-music dance to allegro or presto.

For those who know composer Sophia Serghi or her music, it should come as no surprise that this native of Cyprus, who thrives on musical and physical challenges, is pushing the envelope in using the latest technology in her teaching and composing.

Serghi, the Robert F. and Sarah M. Boyd Distinguished Associate Professor of Music at William and Mary, hasn't broken any pianos, but her compositions often have an intense physical element. Her chamber work has been performed in biking gear, the performers keeping Gatorade nearby to maintain their stamina. Compositions such as "X-Games," for piano and orchestra, which is based on extreme sports, and "Jet-Skis" for flute, clarinet, violin and cello, are among Serghi's numerous award-winning works, which display a tendency to be visceral and rhythmically complex, often combining multiple media.

Score One for Films

Lately, Serghi has been using the new Swem Media Center to teach Introduction to Film Scoring. She and her students are some of the most regular customers of the center's largest studio since it opened in January.

"I've always been interested in writing music for films and I've done documentaries in the past and lots of theatrical plays in Greece and Cyprus and Europe in general," Serghi said.

Last summer she attended the prestigious NYU/ASCAP Foundation Film Scoring Workshop; only 10 applicants are selected each year. Serghi spent two weeks using the latest technologies and being coached by the top film scorers in the country. She came back to Williamsburg determined to do something similar here.

"The timing could not have been more perfect, actually, because of the new media lab and the director, Troy Davis," she said. "He has really pushed and brought this into existence and, lo and behold, we have a state-of-the-art studio."

Music and technology stepped out on the dance floor when Serghi met Davis, who came to William and Mary from the University of Tennessee. She drew up a list of software needed for her new class on film scoring and then was shown what Davis had already ordered. "And I'm checking every single thing on my list, and it's exactly the same things he had," Serghi recalls. "And I said, 'Good. You're hiring the right person.' "

Most of the students come to the film scoring course with some experience. Serghi accepted only 10 students in the first semester the course was offered. Some of the students come from film studies and some from music. Four are freshmen.

"It's a very competitive course to get into because you obviously have to have previous musical experience and have some compositional skills and orchestration craft and so forth," Serghi says. "These students came in with a lot of skills. Nowadays there is so much software available to them that they can pretty much do everything in their rooms. It's just wonderful, though, to have the media lab for them to experiment with new high-end applications that would cost a lot of money and they otherwise wouldn't have."

From MIDI to Full Orchestration

The students have assignments each week to compose short pieces for film clips-ranging from blockbusters to avant garde works, such as Fernand Léger's 1924 "Le Ballet Mécanique." By the end of the semester, each student should have six small clips from various movies, with two- to three-minute orchestrations for each.

"We do a MIDI realization, in that what we hear in the classroom is all electronic, but they can generate a full orchestra score that's all written out," Serghi said. "So, if an orchestra comes and says we want to do your music, they can just generate the parts and it can go to the hands of real musicians."

Each student will choose a favorite to be played live- in a reading situation, not a finished performance-by the William and Mary Orchestra or the Wind Symphony. This opportunity will give the students the rare experience of cuing up a film to a live orchestra and conducting it, as Serghi did in New York.

Students composing pieces for the class can begin at one of three keyboards. There's the QWERTY one attached to their computer or there's the MIDI piano-type keyboard, which also can be plugged into the PC. There's always the standard 88-key hammer-and-wire piano that would be familiar to Beethoven. One student, Chris Cowan, doesn't use any keyboard, plugging a guitar into the computer instead. Many of her students are comfortable initiating their compositions at a computer, but Serghi notes that "when I first started it was pen, pencil and paper."

"Usually I sit at the piano," she said. "I know plenty of composers in the younger generation who just start at the MIDI, using a keyboard right at the computer. For me I'm very much a person who likes to sing to my music and play to my music, so I usually have a lot of sketches, handwritten sketches. The big architecture of the piece may happen on the keyboard, but the initial kernels happen on the piano."

Bay McLaughlin, a member of the class of 2006, is an example of one of the students in Serghi's class who has mostly worked directly on a computer keyboard. He likes to "bend sound," using a professional program like Logic 7. He plays a few measures, which are immediately scored and ready for playback. Then with a touch of a key, a drag of the mouse, he can add notes, transpose or alter just about anything. Change a flute to a drum? Click-it's done. Make an eighth note into a dotted sixteenth? Click, drag-no problem.

"You can take any noise that's in your head and make it happen," he said. "You have just endless possibilities of the sounds you create; anything you want. A program like this goes so far past anything you can ever imagine in your mind. You can't get to a point where the computer won't do something. For me, that's about as cool as it gets."

In an atmosphere filled with powerful software and other high-tech whistles and bells, Serghi continues to emphasize the creative process and writing scores that support the visual message of the film. Additionally, there are still some issues in music on which technological advances have very little impact.

"I get frantic calls from parents occasionally-how is he going to make a living?," she says. "Out of the 10 folks that I have in my class, at least five are going to go to grad school in film scoring, and that's really what they want to do. Three of my current students are thinking of going on to grad school for concert composition."