We Sing the Body Electric

Oregon Electronic Device Orchestra members Olga Oseth, Brandon Skinner, and Churan Feng display their electronic instruments.

Trending Toward Technology at the School of Music and Dance

There is a subtle tug-of-war between tradition and technological advancement that plays out in large and small ways in performing-arts education. So much of our work is about honoring the greats of the past, sometimes it can be all too easy to hide in old and outmoded ways of doing things.

During his fourteen years (to date) as dean of the UO School of Music and Dance, Brad Foley has quietly led efforts to revolutionize the technological capabilities of the school, leading to a reinvention of the curriculum by its faculty.

Guest instructors based on the East Coast deliver lessons to classrooms in Eugene for real-time, sight-and-sound interactions with students. Instructors record lessons for posting as online podcasts. Touch-screen tablets have been installed as digital way-finding stations throughout the Frohnmayer Music Building to help visitors navigate. Students enjoy a refurbished, fully electronic keyboard skills lab.

In just a few short years, the School of Music and Dance has become a cutting-edge incubator for both interpretations of classical repertoire and the creation of new work.

Eyes on the Future

Nowhere is this focus on technology more evident, perhaps, than in Future Music Oregon, the school’s music technology program.

The UO is a leader in offering a curriculum combining music performance and computing, says Jeffrey Stolet, professor of music technology and director of the program.

Stolet explains that the term “music technology” typically refers to the use of computer-based technology to create music. Until recently, this sort of music also had to be recorded, Stolet explains, because computational speeds necessary for producing sound thousands of times per second simply didn’t exist ten years ago.

Advances in these capabilities have not only added a live music component, they’ve also spurred an explosion in interest in Stolet’s program. The School of Music and Dance has responded by enlarging Future Music Oregon with an array of new courses, a music technology minor option, and a new doctor of musical arts degree with an emphasis in data-driven instruments.

“The new DMA degree is directed squarely at the challenges of facilitating beautiful and nuanced real-time performance of music, with the hope of advancing music-making that is truly of our time,” says Stolet.

The new degree curriculum centers on performance using technology, but also on the composition and construction of data-driven instruments, instruments that are controlled via streams of data rather than by exerting energy into a physical body such as a guitar or saxophone.

“Using technology to create beautiful music is one of the most humane applications of such tools,” explains Stolet. “Teaching critical, aesthetic, and nuanced thinking that can be used to solve problems and to create beautiful music and intermedia art will be central to what we do.”

Also central: new music technology instructor Chet Udell, who joined the UO in 2012 as the program’s second faculty member. Udell, whose work combines music and robotics, says that no matter how advanced this technology becomes, the human connection will remain paramount.

“Computers are kind of blank slates in that they can do pretty much anything one is capable of programming them to do,” says Udell. “This openness is daunting. You have to begin somewhere. I find the most successful projects bend computing and technology to serve a musical purpose—not the other way around."

Islands in the Stream

One of the school’s best-lauded technological advances may have its largest impact on those furthest from Eugene. In the winter of 2012, the school began live-streaming select concerts from Beall Concert Hall, starting with a performance by the acclaimed Oregon String Quartet.

The live-stream system allows parents, alumni, and friends to experience concerts by the UO’s premier music ensembles—not to mention student recitals and solo faculty performances—free of charge on the School of Music and Dance website.

A four-camera system has been installed at strategic points throughout Beall Concert Hall, and can be controlled remotely by an operator in a video production booth located in the balcony. Using a state-of-the-art broadcast panel, the operator makes real-time decisions about cuts and fades between the four high-definition cameras.

During a performance, the video feed is instantaneously synched with a professional-quality sound recording courtesy of the school’s sound engineering staff, and then broadcast live online with a delay of only a few seconds.

The live-stream has proved an enormously popular resource for both local online visitors and those further afield. Large performing ensembles habitually attract dozens or hundreds of viewers, with an all-time, single-day high (as of press time) of 867 webpage views on November 13, 2013, a date on which the school live-streamed a concert featuring UO choirs and the University Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Oregon Bach Festival artistic director Matthew Halls.

Plywood, not Pixels

While the word “technology” is often used to describe flashy digital devices or advanced computer applications, technology in its simplest definition is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. Advances aren’t always in binary code, and sometimes blending in is the key.

In addition to the new sprung floors in the UO’s dance studios, the past year has seen one other major facilities improvement: new sound diffusion technology in Beall Concert Hall.

Long considered one of the most acoustically perfect performance spaces on the West Coast for chamber music and small performing groups, the hall is not quite as perfect for larger ensembles. Audience members report that sound produced by large instrumental or choral ensembles can become muddy.

“Acoustically speaking, Beall is not broken; in fact, it’s close to perfect,” explains David Mason, the school’s director of facilities. “The problems arise when we host big bands or anything requiring sound reinforcement, like gospel concerts.”

The school must tread carefully, however. Completed in 1924, Beall Concert Hall is the oldest performing arts space on campus still in use, and one of the few campus buildings that has retained its beautiful historic interior. No one wants to eradicate the hall’s historic charm in the interest of increasing acoustics.

“The trick has been, and will continue to be, keeping what we love about the space and changing what we don’t,” says Mason.

The first phase of the acoustical adjustments, undertaken in the 2012–13 academic year, was the installation of sound diffusion panels designed to break up the trapped sound in architectural “pockets” and to soften the brighter tones, eliminating the cutting effect.

The panels, composed of aluminum and heavy canvas, allow the midrange to pass through, breaking up and mellowing the highs and warming the lows.

Next steps include the addition of a curtain to hide Beall’s magnificent Jürgen Ahrend pipe organ when the instrument is not in use. Adjustable sound diffusion panels will beadded to the stage walls. Finally, a new “sound cloud,” composed of aluminum and canvas, will replace the current inverted Plexiglas pyramids attached to the hall’s ceiling, a vestige of a 1970s upgrade.

In both curriculum and facilities, the School of Music and Dance is proving on a daily basis that technology and tradition are not necessarily strangers.

--Erin Zysett and Aaron Ragan-Fore

Want to Tune in? Join us in watching the school’s free live-stream. If you’ve missed a live-streamed performance and would like to purchase a copy, e-mail us.