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An Apple on the Piano

  • Digital and analog
    Digital and analog  Greg Bowers makes a few adjustments on his laptop on the stage of Ewell Recital Hall. His performances typically include a projection screen fed from his laptop that depicts the digital component of his presentation.  Photo by Joseph McClain
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Greg Bowers' work blends the digital with the analog

When Greg Bowers performs, it's often at a grand piano, but quite often there's a Apple laptop perched next to the music stand.

When he composes, he sits down at a piano, but, when appropriate, he uses a variety of computer-driven multimedia options-audio and visual-to help unlock the expression from within.

"Computer music—or digital art—is a great platform to do that because you can't rely on the same things. It doesn't matter what the media is anymore-whether music or visual," he said. Composer or Computer Guy? ... or a little of both?"In the digital world, which is binary, everything is all ones and zeros. It's an ideal interdisciplinary platform. There is no distinction to the computer."

Bowers, an assistant professor of theory and composition at William & Mary, says he can be inspired by just about anything.

"I just came from a musical analysis class on the dead German guys," he says, referring to, among others, Johann Sebastian Bach. "And I can listen to Britney Spears or Lady Gaga and understand that too. I don't see them as pop artists. Instead, I see the producers, because the producer is the one who is manipulating all of the sound."

In today's digital age, Bowers has a choice. He can write a musical score by putting pencil to a page, just like one of the dead German guys. Or he can tell a computer to perform a series of instructions. Then, the computer actually generates the score. He explains that both approaches involve the same creative process, but the computer can execute a variety of compositional techniques very quickly. When he is teaching, Bowers tries to help his students to understand that the software is making choices for them, and those choices are limited by the software itself.

‘The computer is a fancy pencil'

"When you approach a computer as a creative instrument, you have to realize that the software designer is a part of that process, and so your creative thinking is affected. We get into this ethical argument about who's telling who what to do," Bowers says. "The computer is just a fancy pencil. Ultimately, as a composer you have to be in control because your name goes on the piece. You don't want to get into a situation where you're expecting the computer to behave for you, because it is a tool, not a person."

Students in Bowers' Introduction to Computer Music class are exposed to the same digital techniques he uses in composition and performance.

"We learn how to edit things, how to cut up sound and put it together," he said. "We learn how to record, how to choose a microphone and where to place it. We will run a recording session and edit that recording together. We also learn how to build sounds in the computer-sound synthesis-and then at the very end we do things that are interactive, like performances driven by sensors and multimedia."

The students use a program called Max to design their own interface.

"Using Max, they can decide how they are going to react with the computer and how their reaction is going to cause the computer to output sound," Bowers said.

Still, Bowers said all the digital technology and the bells and whistles of the multimedia experience haven't been able to replace the feeling delivered by a live performance.

Digital can't replace live-yet

"There are parts of the concert experience that cannot be imitated-at least not yet. You cannot sit in front of a cellist playing for you and have it sound the same as it will on a CD: that is a physical phenomenon," he explained. "Our hearing sensitivity can hear about one trillion different frequencies-or timbres. On a CD you're getting a significantly reduced sample of that. So there's actually a physical sensation as well as the psychic sensation of being in front of somebody who wants to personally perform for you and seeing them physically make Greg Bowers' office is a long, narrow space adjacent to Ewell Recital Hall.the sound."

"The emotional content and the connection between audience and performer-and anyone who performs live-will say there's a connection, the feel for the audience, so those elements aren't going to go away," he added. "We're not going to lose our human need."

Indeed, most of Bowers' compositions are traditionally written and executed. One such work was commissioned by the Children's Educational Theatre in Salem, Oregon-a musical based on the novel Alice in Wonderland and the life of its author, Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll.

"That was a musical that I wrote and directed, based on the Alice story we all know, but also keeping in mind the relationship between Carroll and the real Alice, the daughter of the dean of Christ Church College in Oxford, where Carroll worked," he said.

Bowers was interested in the well-known work, but also wanted to explore the story behind Alice and has become a bit of a Lewis Carroll scholar as a result.

"So I wrote a show that is a little edgy at times," he says. "There was gossip at the time about the nature of Carroll's relationship with this girl. Modern Lewis Carroll historians say there was nothing inappropriate there, but there remains this perception of Carroll being an eccentric, and so I introduce that."

The musical takes place in two worlds-with Alice and Lewis Carroll on one part of the stage, while the other part of the stage is Wonderland. "As Carroll is conceiving the stories, they are happening on the Wonderland part of the stage, so we're watching as it comes to life basically," Bowers explained. The composer has to consider a large number of facets involved in the production-from the size of the cast to the audience.

"You have to know-or learn-the abilities of the performers so that you can write something that they can execute. In this case, there were 45 performers," he explained. "And then the other part involves the needs and stipulations of those who are commissioning you in the first place. What is their interest? Their interest is in selling box office tickets."

For Alice, Bowers was charged with creating a musical which would appeal to children and adults alike.

"And, yes, there were kids in the audience so I definitely did take some risks," he said. "But overall it went really well; the production sold out and a great video was made which is being edited now."

Traditional music is not dead

Bowers' Alice is a traditional musical, written the traditional way and performed by live musicians and actors. He believes that such traditional vehicles-including serious music in the vein of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven-will always have its niche. "But I do believe that change is inevitable," he adds.

"Like everything else, we must ask ourselves what the reasons are for seeking out live musicians, as opposed to the reasons we might not need live musicians, essentially. And with the technology constantly changing, I think you constantly have to reevaluate what the place is for each of these different forms of expression," he said.

Bowers does a lot of multimedia performance where the show is just him, a keyboard, a computer, and projections. "My next project involves a show being premiered in Philadelphia in June, where I'll be singing into a computer and the computer will manipulate my voice live."   i