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Composition studies program joins technology and music in harmony

Composition studies program joins technology and music in harmony

Andrew May, Associate Professor of Composition for the UNT College of Music, performs and explains his new computer music program to a student. May has also served as Director of UNT's Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia (CEMI) since 2005. Sara Carpenter

Composition studies program joins technology and music in harmony
October 03
22:23 2017

Against a heavy black curtain, a fluffy-haired violinist plays his music. To a listener’s surprise, the computer in front of him plays back.

“One of the great ways to find out how great and sophisticated the things that people really are, is to try to get a computer to do them,” said Andrew May, an associate professor of composition.

May is a part of UNT’s Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia (CEMI), where technology meets art.

The program, which is housed under the division of composition studies, focuses on blending music with diverse modes of technology. Some of their projects include interactive computer music and virtual reality instruments.

“If you just have acoustic instruments, there’s going to be a limit to how much you can communicate, at least in that language,” lead creative programmer Stephen Lucas said. “But when you have computers and video, it’s easier to have different ideas and concepts.”

In 1963, UNT composer Merrill Ellis founded a tape music studio in an old Denton home. Over the years, they experimented with modern technology and “mixed media” projects.

Since then, students and professors of CEMI have pushed the boundaries of music further into the future.

“It makes you more aware of what performers actually do, which is amazing,”  May said. “The kinds of things we’re able to do to synchronize with each other, tune to each other and react meaningfully to shape music together as an ensemble, we take for granted.”

May, for example, uses computer algorithms as a part of his ensemble. He “teaches” the computer to listen to sounds and even improvise its own notes during a performance.

“It’s a game of sound and a game of relationship,” May said. “And I love to play it.”

The center focuses heavily on computer music, but it houses other projects like the Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts (iARTA), which blends art, engineering and cinema into the fold.

Projects like iARTA and CEMI aim to change how students think about performing music with modern technology by not just using it as a tool, but shaping it into its own creature.

“You get to decide how you’re going to approach it,” Lucas said. “You get to design your own process and computers are expensive, but there’s so much you can do with just one.”

CEMI was created to not just to change performance, but to change perspective.

Since computer music can create all kinds of unique sounds, Nelson said there is a lot more room in how an audience can view the music.

“I might ask someone to listen to a recording of a jackhammer,” Nelson said. “But in a way, maybe when they hear a jackhammer out in the real world, they would consider that it could possibly be music.”

But this new mindset regarding music has been a long time coming.

Professors in the department who have been in the field for years always recall what it was like when music was evolving, but technology was still playing catch up. To produce any kind of music, a musician would have to book it to an institution that had one and pray it wouldn’t botch the file.

“Let’s say you want to generate one minute of music,” Nelson said. “You ask the computer to compile it and come back the next day after 20 hours, hoping it’s done.”

Computers were behemoth machines with wires and clunky software, not ideal for a composer.

Nelson said things have changed dramatically. Technology has evolved at a dizzying rate in a short period of time. In turn, this has impacted the way the electronic music is conducted both in the industry and at CEMI itself.

“You can do things in real time, so as composers, you can listen to things as you’re prototyping and do sophisticated projects that used to take days to process,” Nelson said.

Nowadays, people are wired to multiple channels of technology. Even though everyone has access to platforms of music production, Nelson said CEMI is wholly different. It has compiled years of research and expertise that allow them to break ground in all areas of performance.

“It makes it accessible for lots of people, so now anyone and their pet dog can do computer music,” Nelson said. “But is it interesting? Is it mixed well? Does it incorporate interesting techniques?”

That distinction is what has fostered a hub of innovation within CEMI and its counterparts. Nelson said the school itself has encouraged eccentric music styles and research.

“[UNT] is a place where the composition program has embraced doing things that are different and not necessarily traditional or customary,” Nelson said.

CEMI’s research wants to open eyes and ears to the wonders of its music and possibly make it an instrument that every student can play.

“Hopefully that means the tools for doing computer music are much more available to many more people,” Nelson said. “Hopefully it becomes another kind of instrument that [performers] can use.”

Featured Image: Andrew May, associate professor of composition for the UNT College of Music, performs and explains his new computer music program to a student. May has also served as director of UNT’s Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia (CEMI) since 2005. Sara Carpenter

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