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University of Virginia UVA Arts & Sciences Default
Summer 2015

From the Concert Hall to the Computer Lab

A diverse group of U.Va. professors in the College's departments of Music, Media Studies, and American Studies are introducing an interdisciplinary focus to courses on the roots of popular music and the digital technology involved in composing it.

May 20, 2015 |

When Moira Lennon enrolled in Song Composition last semester, she wasn’t sure what to expect. She had arrived at U.Va. three years earlier intending to major in mathematics. And while she’d always been interested in music – both of her parents were music majors in college – she didn’t think she would follow their lead.

But after taking several courses within the College of Arts & Sciences’ McIntire Department of Music, the choice was simple.

“I was drawn to it and loved it so much,” Lennon says. “It’s a triple threat with professors, students and classes. My best friends are all in the music department. The professors are so easy to talk to out of class – they’re everywhere on Grounds. They know me by name even if I haven’t taken a class with them in years. There’s a huge variety of classes offered and we get incredible visiting artists and writers who have come speak to us in our classes.”

Such as one afternoon during her Song Composition class, when the creators of Les Miserables, who were visiting campus, joined Lennon’s class. “They just decided to have a class with us,” Lennon said. “I never expected that, and I love it so much."

Toward the end of her third year, Lennon switched her major from mathematics to music, joining the 80 to 90 other students whom department chair Richard Will says are majoring in music, a number almost three times larger than just a decade ago. The number of students signing up for non-major offerings has grown substantially also, he says.

That increase is due to several factors, including the recent addition of  a diverse and innovative group of new professors who bring an interdisciplinary focus on popular media and technology to the university’s programs in Music, Media Studies, and American Studies.

These new faculty include a professional DJ, a former Apple employee, a pop critic for Slate and a former United Nations humanitarian worker. helping to fuel the metamorphosis undergone by the entire McIntire Department of Music over the last decade and a half, in an effort to expand and diversify its offerings.

When Will arrived at U.Va. in 2001, the Music department had just begun a Ph.D. program and instituted a new undergraduate curriculum. These two major changes “really opened the curriculum of the department to popular and non-Western music in a way that was not the case here before and is, to a large extent, still not the case at most schools,” Will says.

Composer Philip Glass with Richard Will, Associate Professor and Chair, Dept. of Music
Sanjay Suchak, University Communications

Indeed, the course offerings, such as "Global DJ Culture," "Race and Sound in American Culture" and "Intro to Sound Ethnography" are not courses that you would typically find at most major universities alongside "World Music 101" or Classical music classes, though U.Va. still offers those as well.

So what brought about these changes?

PROGRESSIVE

During the 1990s, several U.Va. Music department professors, including Fred Maus, Scott DeVeaux, Michelle Kisliuk and former department chair Judith Shatin, brainstormed on how to enhance the department and expand its offerings. That led to the first wave of new faculty in 2001, including Will – an expert in classical, folk and roots music — and the Department’s incoming Chair, Matthew Burtner – a composer and specialist in interactive media. Over the last few years, another surge of varied musical brainpower arrived. Assistant Professor Nomi Dave arrived at U.Va. in 2014. She had spent several years as a humanitarian worker for the United Nations, primarily in the West African country of Guinea. While there, Dave began studying the culture’s connections between music, law and politics.

“I wanted to change the type of work I was doing and find out more about the culture and history of the place I’d been living,” Dave says. “Music was the best opening to so many big conversations about what mattered to people locally.”

She left the UN, began her doctoral studies at Oxford and returned to Guinea for her fieldwork.

“People take music very, very seriously there,” Dave says. “You can learn a huge amount about local culture, history, politics and social order through the music because it’s really intertwined into all those domains.”

Dave came to U.Va. after a post-doctoral year at Duke University in 2013. Since her arrival, Dave has taught a seminar on music and pleasure and an "Intro to Music Enthography" course. This semester, she designed a new class for non-music majors entitled “Music and Politics,” examining how pop music and culture intertwines with contemporary politics worldwide.

“U.Va. seemed to be a really great fit because it’s such a progressive music department,” Dave says. “There’s a very strong focus on interdisciplinary work and broad conceptions about the study of music.”

The department’s expansive focus also appealed to Dave’s husband, ethnomusicologist and sound curator Noel Lobley. A visiting lecturer this semester, Lobley will begin a full-time position in the fall. Lobley, who also completed his graduate studies at Oxford before working as a researcher, tutor and lecturer there, has worked in the music industry for the last 20 years with music labels, radio stations, and as a professional DJ. He also curates "Sound Galleries," an ongoing series of events-based projects that he hopes to bring to Charlottesville and across the United States in 2016.

Much of his fieldwork has also taken place in Africa, focusing on everything from the influence of house music in South Africa to the role of traditional music archives and how they mix with the contemporary. This semester, Lobley taught an undergraduate class on global DJ culture and a post-graduate class on global sound cultures, describing both as “where ethnomusicology intersects with sound studies and creative listening practices.” This spring, each of his students submitted a project comprised of their own DJ mix, which Lobley encourages to help them realize how music selections relate to identity.

“Everyone is a DJ, whether they self-identify as one or not,” Lobley adds. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone that doesn’t have that impulse.”

"THE POPULAR"

Book Cover - Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow by Karl Hagstrom Miller

Associate Prof. Karl Miller taught at the University of Texas at Austin for 14 years before coming to U.Va. last fall. An American Pop Culture specialist who has taught in history and music departments, Miller has already published an award-winning book, "Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow," on the development of a musical color line in the early 20th century. He’s currently working on his next book, which examines the history of American popular music from the perspective of amateur musicians.

A guitarist himself, Miller views popular music as  a site of politics, pleasure and work, and loves to examine how those intersect. While researching his most recent book, Miller discovered that amateurs often teach each other how to play music, a learning style he’s testing in his own classes, including a large lecture course titled ‘Popular Music in the US,’ a graduate class titled ‘Readings in US Popular Music,’ and a seminar titled ‘Music and Discourse, which serves as the introduction to the undergrad music major.

“I’ve become very interested in peer-to-peer learning and developing passionate affinity groups, where you get to work on a common project and try to build collaborative learning in the classroom,” Miller says.

Jack Hamilton, Assistant Professor of Media Studies

The new breadth of courses and topics offered aren’t limited to the Music Department itself.  U.Va. gained another asset in popular cultural studies with the arrival of Assistant Prof. Jack Hamilton, who holds a dual appointment in two burgeoning programs: the Department of Media Studies and the Program in American Studies. A 2013 Harvard Ph.D. graduate, Hamilton studies sound, media, and popular culture.

Before he entered the academic realm, Hamilton was a musician, playing piano, organ and other keyboard instruments in a band. He also worked as a music journalist before deciding to apply to Harvard.

“I had always been really interested in music from a historical perspective and one of my former college professors suggested I look into Ph.D. programs,” Hamilton says. “It seemed like American Studies was a good fit for what I wanted to do, which was study music as cultural history.”

He’s currently finishing his first book, "Rubber Souls: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination," which examines the transatlantic interplay of popular music and racial thought during the 1960s.

“The central question is about how rock and roll begins as an interracial form, but by the end of the decade, is seen as something that white people do,” Hamilton says.

His course offerings include “Sound and Cinema,” “Race and Sound in American Culture,” and “Cultures of Hip-Hop.” As the pop critic for the online magazine Slate, Hamilton writes about everything from music to sports and anything culture-related.

Associate Prof. Hector Amaya, who chairs the College’s Department of Media Studies, says the recent additions of Hamilton and other faculty within the McIntire Dept. of Music highlight the renewed importance of “the popular” in academia.

“When I say ‘the popular,’ I’m referring here to popular music in particular. Often times we have thought of music departments as departments concerned with classical forms and with performance. Less often, we think about music departments as inherently connected to popular music and popular forms of entertainment today,” Amaya says. 

“I think that this understanding of the popular in a sense signals a commitment or a redefinition of the  liberal arts and the humanities. They point to an understanding of liberal arts and humanities where engagement with the present is very important. … I think the definition of liberal arts and humanities includes a recognition that what is popular today means the engagement that the liberal arts and humanities have to have today with society, with forms that are common, approachable and that one day may be considered classical. How long before Jimi Hendrix is considered a classic?”

COMPUTER-GENERATED SOUND

The cultural explorations of Hamilton and other faculty coexist within a curriculum that also explores the technical side of sound.

Luke Dahl, an Assistant Professor of Music in the Composition and Computer Technologies program. Dahl earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan, where he focused on how sound gets processed. Dahl then worked for several years, designing sound cards for Creative Labs and working for Apple from 2004 to 2006 on “audio quality assurance,” testing new iPod hardware and software builds to ensure top-notch sound quality before returning to graduate school. He earned a master’s from Stanford University in music, science and technology, followed by a Ph.D. in computer-based music theory and acoustics from Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.

Now, Dahl says, “I like teaching, being in an academic setting where you can explore ideas and research.”

He teaches several courses related to his work, including one on how to make audio effects as well as a graduate course entitled “Digital Signal Processing for Musicians.” His classes are already becoming popular: his audio effects-focused course, entitled “Computer Applications in Music,” which he describes as “very technical,” initially had more students enrolled than he could accept. Many of them were engineering and computer science majors.

“All music goes through a computer now, and there’s equalization that applies,” Dahl says. “I teach the students how to make some of the tools we use in the studio as well as how to understand to help to use them better.”

And while he hasn’t had time for local performances yet, Dahl also produces and performs electronic dance music. He has several ideas for future courses, including working with dancers and using dance movements to generate music. He would also like to offer a course on creating new instruments, ones he describes as, “new interfaces for musical expression, developing new ways to control computer-generated sound.”

Assistant Professor of Music Luke Dahl (left) and TA Max Tfirn (right) observe an early draft of a student's final class project.
Lorenzo Perez

“I want to teach a class where students make their own musical instruments in which a computer-generated sound is controlled by a performer in various ways,” Dahl says.

That computer-generated sound continues to lure a growing number of students eager to explore electronic music. When Savannah Thieme first toured the University of Virginia as a prospective student, she left impressed with the range of course offerings related to computer music.

"There’s a lot of very avant-garde experimental electronic music stuff that our department is interested in,” says Thieme, a rising fourth-year Music major. “A lot more undergrads are now getting acclimated with it. …It seems like U.Va. is pretty unique in that our prominence in the electronic music world is less than 20 years old, and we have a good graduate program in it now and we’re drawing more people every year.

“I’m noticing more and more grad students each year  – they interact a lot with the undergrads, which is awesome. I know every grad student in that program, maybe 12 people, and that’s been so helpful. It's small enough that I can directly talk to my teachers, and they have time to do that with me, but it’s also not a conservatory – you can create your own program if you want to."

As the McIntire Department’s curriculum continues to expand across musical genres, so does the spectrum of students – from beginners to aspiring professional musicians – lured to Old Cabell Hall to sample its courses.

Fourth-year English major James Perla plays music as a casual hobby, but he feels at home in the range of Music elective classes he’s taken, primarily related to electronic music and ethnomusicology.

"The classes I’ve been in, which are mostly intro classes, it’s a wide-range of people from different disciplines. You get Computer Science, Anthropology, Biomedical engineering, etc. taking these classes because they sound interesting,” Perla says.  "The composition classes I’m drawn to because the professors really encourage students to make art in their own right and express themselves, which I’m a proponent for.

“Getting the tools to do that – it’s neat to see your progression from the beginning to the end of the semester. I’m also on the other side of it, which is studying different cultures, their music and forms of musical expression. Ethnomusicology is very interdisciplinary because you can apply things you learn in English class to the issues that ethnographers deal with – it’s more an anthropology class than a music class.”

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