Beyond the Barline
Christmas in July
July 1st is a special day at the University of Oregon. It’s the day that the money budgeted for the fiscal year is released to the respective departments (in other words, it’s when we get to spend it). There is no more joyous day in the year—and this year is particularly joyous, for a certain bearded fellow from up north has bestowed upon us an act of great generosity. Is it Santa Claus? No. This particular benefactor is a billionaire shoe baron and U.O. alum from Beaverton, Oregon. Luckily for us, the University was still on his “nice” list last year when he endowed several chairs (tenured faculty positions), one of which was awarded to Jeffrey Stolet, the Director of Future Music Oregon.
Phil’s Last Act of Generosity
Since then, of course, there was a major falling out between Phil Knight and the University of Oregon over the University’s decision to join the Workers Rights Consortium, a group highly critical of Nike’s labor practices overseas. While I respect Knight’s right to choose the recipients of his donations, I also think it’s inexcusable to withdraw money already promised (specifically for the Auzen Stadium expansion). Not to mention how much he still owes the University for making him who he is today. If Knight hadn’t gone to U.O., he never would have met Bill Bowerman (his track coach), with whom he later founded Nike. But enough of my ranting. Fortunately for us, the money pledged to the endowed chairs had already been spent.
The Way It Was
Electronic music at the University had always been a struggle. Jeff had split his time between Music and Dance (where he was the Music Director) since he was hired in 1988. I was his lone GTF (Graduate Teaching Fellow), and between us we were responsible for an entire department at the Music School. Demand was high and kept growing every year, though we were unable to accommodate any more students. We hadn’t had a major upgrade since 1997, and our newest computer was a Power Center 180 still running System 7.6. We had lots of professional audio and MIDI gear, but none of that had been updated in years, either. We did what we could when the money was available, but it was always a compromise. The equipment in the smaller studios (used by beginners) was even more outdated. It’s hard to defend the Mac platform when students compare a IIci or a Quadra to the Pentium II or Celeron boxes they run at home. I had a G3 at home that smoked, but the students’ first exposure was to a Mac eight to ten years out of date. I was frustrated.
A New Paradigm
With the major budget increase we received as part of the Knight Chair endowment, we’re installing a major upgrade this year. Due to compatibility issues, we’re passing on G4s and OS 9 for now. Instead, we’re purchasing four G3s (two blue, two beige) running OS 8.6. The Blue and Whites will include serial ports and SCSI cards to keep them compatible with our other hardware. We’re also purchasing three new Kyma systems (I’ll be reviewing Kyma 5.0 next month) to add to the one we already own, a Zeta violin system (essentially a MIDI violin controller), and new Pro Tools systems. We’ll have a total of four setups, one each for the beginning, intermediate, and advanced studios, along with a fourth setup for concerts.
Teach Them to Adapt
With upgraded hardware and software comes the chance to revise the curriculum. In the past, we had always maintained an uneasy balance between an academic and a vocational model—i.e., focusing on concepts versus teaching specific hardware and software. As part of a university, we had always leaned toward the academic model, but the limited quantity of specialized software available forced us in the vocational direction. Now that we can finally purchase enough software and hardware to upgrade all three studios and make them largely compatible, we can teach fewer software packages, more consistently. We can also focus on concepts, so students will be able to adapt to the constantly changing specifics of hardware and software. Here’s a broad outline of the new curriculum:
Start with Kyma
The ideal environment for teaching concepts is the most flexible environment available. However, most commercial keyboards and software packages are highly specialized. This limits what one can teach with them. The exception is the Kyma system (review coming next month), which combines software and hardware into a completely open environment. It can be a synthesizer, a sampler, a sequencer, an effects processor, or a weird contraption combining all of these. It’s cross platform (though we always run it on a Mac, of course), and at $3200 for the base system, it’s comparable in price to a professional keyboard workstation. The only catch is that there is no keyboard, but if you already own one or more keyboards or other controllers (we have several), the extra set of keys is unnecessary. That said, I don’t delude myself into thinking that every student who graduates with a music technology degree will buy one. But that’s not why we chose it. We chose it because it provides a clear way to teach all aspects of digital audio within a single environment.
Hold on. How can I suggest dropping sequencing from our curriculum? Well, I’m not suggesting that at all. For years, though, another course at the School of Music has taught the basics of MIDI and sequencing. There was always an overlap between this class and the MIDI portion of the introductory electronic music class, but as facilities became more interchangeable that overlap grew. Finally, we decided to drop sequencing from the introductory course, and thus eliminate the overlap.
Then Add Max
MIDI is still important, though, and so is programming. MAX is the one application that combines both in a user-friendly environment. Its layout resembles a flowchart, thus emphasizing the conceptual aspects of programming over the specifics of code. Once learned, however, MAX provides an excellent foundation for a more advanced study of programming. MAX also introduces students to the specifics of the MIDI implementation. Different status bytes and their associated data bytes are handled by separate objects. This reinforces the conceptual understanding of MIDI that I teach in the classroom. MAX also allows easy integration of Kyma (which sends and receives MIDI) with other samplers and synthesizers in the studio.
A New Degree Program
With more resources we can admit more students and expand our selection of degree programs. We began in 1995 with an undergraduate degree in Music Technology, then added a doctoral supporting area in Computer Music (I was the first to sign up) a year later. Now we have the opportunity to add a Masters degree program. This program (pending final approval) will emphasize the role electronic music plays in combination with other arts, such as visual design, theater, and video.
More Guest Artists
We can also bring in more guest artists and guest lecturers. In the past, we’ve welcomed Carla Scalletti, the founder of Symbolic Sound and co-designer of the Kyma System (did I mention I’m reviewing Kyma 5.0 next month? :-)); Dave Porter of Music Annex in San Francisco; Todd Barton, the composer-in-residence of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Dennis Miller, composer and columnist for Electronic Musician; and several noted composers, including Allen Strange, Brain Bellet, and Peter Terry. With a bigger budget, we can bring more guests and pay them more to come. So far this year we’ve lined up Joel Chadabe, composer, writer, and founder of EMF; and Chris Chaffe, composer and researcher at Stanford University. We’re also hoping to invite Miller Puckette, the father of MAX. Bringing our students in contact with prominent people in the field will help them to establish connections they might maintain throughout their careers.
I Get Some Help
The extra money will also provide for a new GTF position in addition to my own. My new colleague, John Villec (who turned me on to MP3.com—look for his music there), brings an extensive background in electronic music, traditional acoustic composition, jazz, multimedia, and computer geekery. His only fault: he owns a PC. Well, nobody’s perfect. He still has to use a Mac in the studio, though. Heh, heh.
Dust Off My Web Design Chops
One of the toughest tasks in any musician’s life is coming up with the name for your band. Honestly, I didn’t like the names of any of the bands I played in during my rock and roll days. So when the suggestion was made that we put together an ensemble from the members of Future Music Oregon, I knew we had to take a different approach or we’d end up with another stupid name.
As any of you who are new music aficionados know, the names of new music groups are both lame and pretentious. Jeff made a suggestion worthy of a room of computer geeks: “How about an anagram of Future Music Oregon?” I set to work, and after rejecting several names that were far more offensive if not downright obscene, settled upon Tumour of Urgencies (okay, I’ll wait for you to check that it’s actually an anagram…there).
The plan is to assemble a group of, say, four or five, and use our various unorthodox MIDI controllers to make a set of interactive semi-improvisatory pieces. Once we play for a while and appear on one or two FMO concerts, we can book gigs around town, and maybe even go to Portland. Seriously, I hope the group will help publicize the studio. I also miss being in a band.
Also in This Series
- Ready or Not! · November 2002
- The Other Petition · August 2002
- The Samples Have Been Changed to Protect the Innocent · May 2002
- Record Execs Ate My Hard Drive! · April 2002
- And the Award Goes to… · March 2002
- Expos, From a Distance · February 2002
- My Resolution · January 2002
- Too Much Hype · November 2001
- And They’re Off! · September 2001
- Complete Archive