Sweet Briar’s new electroacoustic lab brings opportunities for women composers

October 17, 2016 | By Jennifer McManamay
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Senior Briana McCall gets a demo of the equipment in Sweet Briar’s new electroacoustic composition studio from Professor Josh Harris. McCall, a singer/songwriter double majoring in music and French, just learned the lab also can be used to record songs.

Sweet Briar College is using a $10,000 Chegg David B. Goldberg Music Grant to open an electroacoustic studio for music composition. The new space will enhance the music department’s offerings and add incentives for students interested in composing — a field in which women are historically underrepresented.

Assistant professor of music and composer Josh Harris is putting finishing touches on the space, which includes the installation of a dedicated computer, microphones, speakers and the latest software. The new lab in Babcock 020 will be completed this fall and open in time for an honors course Harris will teach on sound design in spring 2017.

Learning the technical skills needed for sound design in video gaming, television or movies is one of the studio’s practical applications, Harris says, as well as how to use professional recording software. Moreover, most music composition today is done with the aid of computers, he says.

The studio also allows Sweet Briar to expand its BLUR curriculum. BLUR, the Blue Ridge Summer Institute for Young Artists, is an arts camp for high school students offering tracks in studio art, creative writing and now sound design and composition.

This isn’t the College’s first use of synthesizers and other technology in the music program, but it moves forward a goal of the department — and part of the reason Harris was hired in 2014 — to reestablish strength in both composition and music technology. Already, he has two students who plan projects using the lab next semester.

“I think we have the opportunity at Sweet Briar to get women excited about composition,” Harris says. “This studio is going to be a way in for a lot of students who might not have thought of music composition before — especially if they’ve been thinking about it in terms of writing classical music.”

For Pamela DeWeese, dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs, the $10,000 grant — which the College won in an online contest last year — came at a good time.

“Across departments, we’re assessing our resources so we can focus on our strengths to provide students the best possible experience,” DeWeese said.

“This grant allows us to fulfill an existing goal and create learning opportunities that distinguish us from other small liberal arts schools — and from many large programs, for that matter. And because we’re small, our students will be able to use the equipment as early as their first semester.”

Women may be underrepresented among composers, but there are many fine examples students can look to, including pioneers in the electroacoustic field such as Laurie Spiegel. Harris also notes there’s a tradition of using computers to synthesize audio to make “art music” dating back to the 1950s — though you might not immediately recognize it as music.

“Sometimes it’s described as beeps and squawks. But it gets you to think about sound in an abstract and essential way,” he says.

“I think it makes you a better composer. Even if you’re composing with acoustic instruments, and even if you want to write for piano or string quartet, understanding and being able to work with the building blocks of sound changes the way you think about composing. “

That Sweet Briar is simultaneously launching a computer science program — pending approval by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges — has Harris doubly excited. He can see himself and his students working with colleagues in the computer science and engineering programs.

“Once you turn sound or anything into ones and zeros, you can do anything with it,” he says. “You can make a robot walk, you can make video, you can make sound, so there are a lot of opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration.”

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