Performance Arts Technology seeks to expose limitless potential of technology and art

Wednesday, March 21, 2018 - 3:16pm

Johanna Bauman discusses the PAT program.

Johanna Bauman discusses the PAT program. Buy this photo
Darby Stripe / Daily

Moore’s law postulates the capabilities of technology double every two years and will continue to do so indefinitely. The logical base of this projection into the future has been disputed, but regardless its central idea is true: technology does not stop. This characteristic is what makes the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s Performance Arts Technology department so interesting, as the challenge for students is to chase this technological trend through art.

The Daily spoke with PAT students about the unique characteristics of the University’s program that facilitate the marriage between art and technology as well as the intrinsic innovation within the major.

Fee Christoph, an interarts performance and computer science major, took both PAT 201 and PAT 498. In PAT 201, Christoph was exposed to the processes behind the creation of electronic music and some history about the genre.

“In the class itself, what I really enjoyed was that it wasn’t just a focus on learning (PAT) skills, but a lot of it was also about thinking about electronic music and the debates it presents and understanding philosophically what it means for these different music movements to be happening,” Christoph said.

Her PAT 498 experience was slightly different: “PAT 201 was a studio class where we were making more music, and then in PAT 498 we were learning all about this awesome electronic music.”

In PAT 498, Christoph learned the scope of electronic music in a social context, as her professor revealed to the students many artists working at the fringe of technology-driven music, especially women and minorities innovating in a genre historically dominated by white men.

“The easiest gate into the history of electronic music is through a lot of white male composers, so it was really cool to have a class that was like, ‘Hey, there are also a ton of women composers and minority composers who are doing amazing work currently,’” Christoph said.

Classes in PAT often examine artistic innovation in the context of history, a focus which has offered its students a broader perspective on the possibilities that technology offers. In another interview, PAT major and independent singer-songwriter Johanna Baumann expanded on the importance of this innovation.

“If we’re talking about history, going back to, let’s say, the 1900s … people were going back to the classical stuff, but there were also other people who were like, ‘No, we’re not going to go there. We’re going to do new things. We’re going to mess around with records and later tape, and cut stuff up, and make crazy stuff that doesn’t sound like music to anyone.’ Yet. But now it sounds like music to us,” Baumann said.

According to Baumann, this pattern has continued throughout many of the major technological advancements of the last century, all the way up to the present day.

“People were making music with computers as soon as computers started to become a thing,” she said. “Even before that, people were using technology in music in creative ways … Technology and art develop alongside each other and enhance each other, because technology without art would be super boring. And then art without technology would be more limited.”

As a PAT student, Baumann is often seeking out creative ways to explore this intersection. She interned last year at Moogfest, a festival focused on music and technology, and just released an original album in February. The album, Peach, consists of eight tracks, some of which were recorded as projects in PAT recording classes. Last year, Baumann received the Hedy Lamarr Achievement Award for Emerging Leaders in Entertainment Technology, presented by the Digital Entertainment Group. As she pointed out in our conversation, she is only one example: “PAT majors are doing big things.”

“If you just know the technical basics, you’re not going to be able to solve problems as well as if you know the creative aspects,” Baumann said. “Say you’re helping a musician, and they have some kind of problem … You know the technology of what’s going to work, and then you also know, aesthetically and musically, what’s going to sound good. So I think having the creative experience really enhances being an engineer. Because you’re an artist, too, so you can help the artist.”

Baumann’s newest project is her senior thesis, a sound installation to be put up the Chip Davis Technology Studio of the Earl V. Moore Building. The student showcase day for all senior theses will take place April 13. Baumann’s own installation, Mood Room, will be a curtained-off section of the room with stations that generate music algorithmically using participants’ heart rate, temperature and conductance.

“I’m trying to estimate people’s moods and play music that reflects the mood of the room, and then also have colored lights and stuff. It’s like a mood ring, but a room,” Baumann said.

Ryan Cox, a Daily Arts Writer and former saxophone performance major, explained his initial draw to PAT was the program’s diversity of interests and lack of rigidity that mirrored the limitlessness of technology.

“One of the things that I really liked about the PAT program here especially was how diverse is actually was,” Cox said. “They didn’t have a specific focus, but it was kind of what you made of it. I’ve had friends graduate here who are now recording engineers in L.A.. I’ve had friends graduate here who are now working for digital audio workstations and coding for them. It’s really as technical or as creative as you want it to be.”

For example, Cox mentioned that for his PAT application, he was asked to rearrange a Bach fugue with the objective to “be as weird and creative as you can be.” He merged the fugue with “Back to the Future” themes, titling his piece, “Bach to the Future,” checking both the weird and creative boxes.

Cox also spoke on the controversy regarding the combination of music and technology in general. While there is certainly merit to the claim technology’s influence in music has the potential to transform warm, analog sounds into digital, inauthentic computations, Cox sided with the computers. To him, the influx of technology in art opens up many more doors than it closes, especially when the proper balance between natural and artificial is struck.

“I’m all for the incorporation of technology in music,” Cox said. “I think it’s really important because of how many boundaries it alleviates. It’s really cool to have a combination of analog sounds and more digital, abstract sounds that you wouldn’t be able to actually create. I think that’s stimulating for the listener because they’ll hear these things that are man-made, and then they’ll hear these things that aren’t natural.”

Cox posited this stimulating blend of electronic and organic sounds is what drives pop and hip-hop music today, as electronically engineered beats are often paired with a natural, familiar voice.

Sticking with the topic of the benefits technology brings to art, our conversation shifted toward the music industry. Today, with the advent of label-less streaming services like SoundCloud and Bandcamp, amateur musicians can independently make the leap into the professional world with simply a microphone, a digital audio workstation and a computer. This progression not only makes the creation and promotion of music infinitely easier for the artist, but it also exposes so much art to the listener that would go either uncreated or undiscovered without technology.

When asked about his focus and future in PAT, Cox gave a response in line with the information he’d already provided about the ever-changing landscape of technology and music.

“It’s really hard to say, because every time I get exposed to something new in PAT, I gravitate towards it,” Cox said. “Every day, what I see myself doing in the future is different. It’s really hard to decide what you want to do, because every day music technology and performance arts technology is growing and its exponential. It’s not going to stop.”

This year’s student showcase will be a single example of the expansive work that PAT students are doing, which could be viewed as the most recent culmination of several years of art and technology developing alongside one another. According to Department Chair Michael Gurevich, these developments can be boiled down to two major factors, the first being an immense growth in computing power.

“When I was starting out, you could barely kind of process and manipulate sound on a computer live, in real time,” Gurevich said. “Now, your watch or your phone can do that. So just the sheer computing power has created the possibility that anyone’s phone, computer (and) lots of mobile computing devices are basically powerful recording studios of powerful simple processes. So that means that anyone can do it, and anyone has the access to really sophisticated tools.”

Gurevich has been active in the field of performance arts technology for about 20 years. Another factor that has led to an increase in innovation in this field, he said, is the internet.

“The second thing is the possibility that using the internet as a medium for music-making has made so the possibility of now not just recording, producing one’s own music, but distributing it online,” Gurevich said. “But then also the possibility of collaborating with people in distant locations who you’ve never met— and we can do that live now, too. So one of our interests in our department at Michigan is what we call telematics, so the possibility of playing live with people in distant locations.”

The PAT program at the University specifically has risen to meet the occasion. One of the things that makes the department here stand out is that the program is highly undergraduate-focused; By Gurevich’s estimate, as many as 98 percent of PAT students are undergraduates.

“Music technology, which is really what our department is primarily about, tends to be a field that really, in most schools, exists primarily at the graduate level,” Gurevich said. “And that’s because in order to work in this field, you need to know a lot about music, you need to know a lot about technology and you need to also have put some thought into how those two things go together … So we’re pretty unique in that respect, in that we start out in a really challenging field, from day one, with undergraduate students.”

The department is also unique because of it’s sheer breadth: There are nine full-time faculty members, with focuses encompassing composition, film music, visual media, recording, sound engineering and more. All of the faculty and their classes share a commitment to prioritizing creativity through a technological lens.

“What we try to do, always, is to keep the aesthetic and the creative aspects of what we’re doing front and center in all of our classes … What we try to do is not focus on technology for its own sake, but instead to try to always be asking what are the creative consequences and the creative or artistic possibilities of a particular technique or a particular technology,” Gurevich said.

The classes accomplish this often through assigning project-based work, and assignments where “as soon as students learn something, they’re starting to make music with it.” The world of performance arts technology is rapidly evolving, and judging by the pace of the department and the wide variety of projects being undertaken by its students, the University’s PAT program is more than prepared to keep up.

“Historically, a lot of new technologies have actually emerged from artistic motivations. At the same time, artists have always been kind of voracious consumers of technologies, and as soon as a new technology emerges, artists are using it to try to push art forward. And I think that exists in music, it exists in visual art, in architecture, in almost any creative field,” Gurevich said. “So I think they’ve always been intertwined, and that’ll probably always be the case.”