The Columbia Daily Tribune: MU festival explores ties between music, new media

October 14, 2012


Technology is meant to supply us with solutions to problems of industry and science, to provide the tools necessary to bound hurdles to progress and growth.

But what happens when the use of technology evokes more questions than answers? Or when it introduces seemingly foreign elements into a very human, intimate process? These are among the topics on the docket this week at the University of Missouri’s “Music and New Media at the Crossroads,” a festival presented jointly by the School of Music and School of Journalism.

The two-day event is designed to shed light on the broader discussion about how technology can “enhance real people making real music,” deepen ties between kindred disciplines and help the university identify areas in which it might need to catch up, said Robert Shay, director of the School of Music. To achieve these goals, the school has brought in a world-class group of experts and performers who are actively engaged with both the digital and human aspects of music-making. They include Pulitzer and Grammy winners, innovative composers and eclectic artists.

MU is bringing this conversation to the community because the conversation has arrived at its doorstep. Shay noted that incoming students already are acquainted with — and often very nimble in their use — of new media and music technology. He wants to explore better means of preparing them for the future — and equipping faculty to respond to their acumen. Hopefully, “an effort like this begins to help us level the playing field a little bit,” he said.

New media has become integrated with traditional music-making in ways that range from the “fanciful” to the practical and, frankly, convenient, Shay said. A more novel example might be members of a chamber group gathering to perform not on a common stage, but via a high-speed Internet connection. On the more pragmatic side, schools have opportunities to go online and take advantage of master classes held in other cities or countries, allowing their students to receive valuable critique from a clinician they might not otherwise be able to access. Additionally, some of today’s classical performers read their notes and rhythms from an iPad rather than a physical score.

And, of course, new technologies bring about new issues related to financial viability. Will new media be a hindrance to establishing a career or allow artists to flourish? “There are examples at one extreme of new media opening new opportunities for folks and then, at the other extreme, traditional opportunities drying up as a result of new media,” Shay said.

One artist actively making his own opportunities is Tod Machover, the festival’s keynote speaker. He is “on the farthest edge of working with new media as a composer,” Shay said, developing his own instruments, integrating robotics and staging operas that are “almost more like installations.”

Further modeling new means of music-making are superlative cellist Matt Haimovitz and Grammy-winning ensemble eighth blackbird, who will both perform; both are “doing programs that freely blend” different musical styles, uses of technology and attitudes toward communication, Shay said. Haimovitz has carried his cello into the world’s greatest concert halls but also clubs and bars. eighth blackbird describes itself as uniting the “finesse of a string quartet with the energy of a rock band and the audacity of a storefront theater company.”

Leading another facet of the conversation are esteemed arts writers Greg Sandow and Tim Page. The former teaches at Juilliard, has worked as a scribe for the likes of the Village Voice and authors a must-read blog on “The Future of Classical Music.” The latter earned a Pulitzer for his Washington Post arts criticism and also has seen the creative process from his perches as a concert presenter and professor.

In one sense, Sandow and Page appear not only to offer their wisdom and insight, but also to reinforce the all-encompassing nature, and the interconnectedness, of this conversation. The way in which music is created doesn’t just affect the composer, the performer or even the listener, but much wider swaths of the population. As art is created and disseminated using new technologies, how will arts journalists adapt? Will they remain relevant or even necessary in their roles as conduits and cultural commentators?

Wherever one is situated on the digital spectrum, this is a dialogue that musicians — and music lovers — cannot ignore or write off as a distraction. The integration of new technologies has always been a necessary consideration for musicians, even at the level of learning how to play and write for newly fashioned instruments, said Jonathan Kuuskoski, director of entrepreneurship and community programs at the School of Music. He pointed to Bach’s initial rejection of the fortepiano as an example of great artists wrestling with changing norms.

“It’s always been part of the discussion, so to think that stops or to take a stance and say new media is not part of this would probably be a mistake,” he said.

Reach Aarik Danielsen at 573-815-1731 or e-mail

Read at: Columbia Daily Tribune

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