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Wired for sound

By Betsy Goolian

Technology is a given.

It’s a part of our daily lives and it’s here to stay. It’s the perpetual innovation machine, evolving and changing, morphing into new forms at a sometimes alarming rate. If you own the equipment, the saying goes, it’s already obsolete.

Twenty-five years ago, though, the idea of a music program based on the creative possibilities of technology must have seemed like so much science fiction. But Paul Boylan, then dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, saw into the future.

That future is now.

“We’re in the age of the computer,” says Virgil Moorefield, on the Performing Arts Technology (PAT) faculty. “Just as the orchestra is an expression of the mechanical age, digital music is the expression of the digital age.”

Back in 1985, electronic music in Ann Arbor was not without precedent. In 1961, a group of courageous composers lit a spark with their now famous ONCE Festival of New Music. Having no access to commercially available and affordable equipment, they built their own.

Now fast forward to the early 1980s. Paul Boylan is on a trip to Los Angeles, visiting the studio of alumnus Richard Perry (BM, ‘64), producer of artists like Rod Stewart, Diana Ross, and Barbra Streisand. He’s sitting in on a recording session.

That’s when it hit him. “A young synthesizer player was providing much of the back-up for the session,” Boylan recalls. “I found his musicianship absolutely amazing. During a break, I asked him what music school he attended and learned, to my horror, that he had wanted to come to Michigan.” Not only did his transcript not meet the School’s requirements, but the curriculum he needed did not yet exist.

Boylan came back to Ann Arbor determined to find a way for such musicians to develop their talent and artistry in a conservatory setting. He assigned faculty member David Crawford, conversant with computers in his work developing notations for early music, to chair a committee on feasibility. By 1985, the Regents had given the green light to a Center for Performing Arts Technology.

Suddenly the School’s listening room was appropriated for a computer lab. “Bringing the keyboards in caused a lot of discomfort,” Crawford remembers. “But it was a turning point for the School.”

“It was not an easy sell,” Stephen Rush affirms. On the PAT faculty since 1987, Rush was there from almost the beginning. “The program started with a classroom of low-end synthesizers, an e-Max, a couple of Casio CZ101s, and some Mac Pluses. The curriculum was pretty basic, with classes in music notation and programming.”

By the mid 1990s, though, when personal computers had entered most of our lives, Performing Arts Technology was starting to look like a better idea. With the advent of inexpensive digital chips, microcomputers were becoming both affordable and powerful enough to perform audio synthesis in real time. Gone were the computers of yore, room-filling mainframes that ran for hours or even days to generate a few minutes of music.

When first director David Gregory, a pioneer in the field, especially as applied to dance, moved on to the private sector, Mary Simoni was brought in to direct the program, a post she held from 1994 to 2009. Simoni, Rush, and Crawford set to work to carefully craft a curriculum with a definitive degree trajectory. Today there are four undergraduate degree tracks and a master’s in media arts.

“Paul Boylan clearly had the vision for arts and technology,” says Simoni, who directed the program during a period of enormous growth. “It was a vision he shared with James Duderstadt, then University President. It was just a really fertile time on campus for this kind of thing to germinate and take root.”

Now, some 80+ students call themselves PAT majors. They divide their time between the E.V. Moore Building, the main hub for many of SMTD’s music courses, and the Duderstadt Center, a full-service media commons started by Duderstadt and his wife Anne, just a short walk across North Campus.

At the Moore Building, students use the Music Technology Lab with twelve workstations with the latest Macintosh computers, now with greatly increased processing power, thanks to a gift from an anonymous donor. There’s also a new Surround Sound Lab, again made possible by the same gift. It’s a facility where multi-channel audio and video work can be created and viewed in surround and is compatible with the systems in the Music Technology Lab, at the Duderstadt Center, and the Hill Auditorium Recording Studio.

“The quality of our teaching and research in PAT is inextricably linked to the caliber of our labs and studios,” Simoni says. “One of our top priorities is to have long-term funding in place for upgrades like these. With technology constantly changing and improving, the strength of the department depends on staying ahead of the curve with the newest equipment so students can be up to the minute when they emerge into the real job market.”

Students take courses in acoustics and psychoacoustics, learning the basics of sound, human hearing and perception. They study sound recording at the Audio Studio at the Duderstadt, fully equipped to replicate a professional situation. Courses in computer music, multimedia, and intermedia composition let them use their creativity, musical know-how, and technological savvy to come up with marvelously original pieces.

“One thing we’re really careful not to do is impart an aesthetic on them,” says Simoni. “They have to come up with their own ideas. They’re doing work all over the place. Their accomplishments are incredible and far reaching.”

“It’s the most versatile music degree you can get,” says Kevin DeKimpe, a senior in composition who was encouraged to write the score for a 90-minute film, Bilal’s Stand, later accepted for screening as a feature at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

“It’s about currency in the field,” says Rush. Two recent alumni are part of a team at Shure Systems that developed an inner-ear monitor used at this year’s Super Bowl half-time show. Another heads up the iPhone team at Apple.

“The strength in the PAT program for me,” says Nate Cartier, ’01, video editor and sound designer working in L.A., “was access to resources outside the PAT classes. The coursework gives you the theoretical foundation. Then you can collaborate with the theatre and film departments and apply that knowledge more broadly.”

Jason Corey, now department chair, agrees. “I think what really makes PAT unique is the fact that we’re at the University of Michigan, where we have not only a top school of music, theatre and dance, but a top college of engineering and a screen arts and cultures department.”

“We’re trying to integrate technology in various forms,” Corey says, “to extend and enhance musical ideas in ways that might not be possible with acoustic instruments. We’re providing options for creative expression, potentially new ways of thinking about music and music performance and maybe spurring new compositional or improvisation ideas.”

Betsy Goolian is a writer and editor at U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance.