Spring 2008 Edition
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Come Together

Come Together

In the beginning was the drum and then the flute, made of stone and bone. Then came the stringed instruments — the lute and the harp. Some 30,000 years later, the Renaissance brought forth the harpsichord, and several centuries down the road the metronome was introduced to keep everyone’s toes tapping to the same beat. By and large, it was all good.

And then the 20th century unrolled and time sped up. Radio brought city music to country parlors, and Ed Sullivan brought Elvis to TV — Elvis from the waist up, actually, since cameras weren’t allowed to capture his swinging hips. Jazz musicians would amp up their guitars in noisy Chicago bars, and the Beatles unleashed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — the first album so multi-tracked it couldn’t be performed live. A few bits and bytes after inventors said, “Let there be computers,” musicians found their home in a new space-age medium. And we all saw that it was (mostly) good, for we plunged in full force to entertain and express ourselves.

Some have even devoted their lives to the emerging art forms, including Willamette Music Professor Mike Nord, who loops and layers and bends sounds for improvisational performances on three continents. Nord still remembers buying his first MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) setup. “I just bought it,” he says. “I didn’t have the money.” The financially reckless, artistically hungry guitarist was playing any gig that would pay his New York City rent. “I played in every kind of band you can think of — punk, blues, art rock, jazz, classical. If the gig called for cha-cha, you played cha-cha. You had to fake it, as they say in the business, or you didn’t eat.” Wanting to be free of commercial constraints, Nord headed for grad school to focus on electronic music-making. He wanted to push past traditional boundaries and explore an art form driven by expression, not the marketplace.

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Meanwhile, Jenny Orr had just been hired in Willamette’s computer science department, but was looking outside the box of her computer monitor. “I’m a science person at heart,” says Orr, whose doctorate in neural networks combined computer science, physics and math, “but art has always drawn me in.” Intrigued by the landscape of emerging technologies and software, Orr offered to teach computer graphics her second semester, essentially redefining her academic focus. It was like leaping off a professional cliff.

Orr didn’t get much sleep that first semester, but she knew she had found her passion. She taught students how to write interactive 3-D graphics programs and how to use math to model images with complex light interactions. “I fell in love with computer graphics because it combined two primary interests I thought were destined to remain separate: art and science.” And when Orr moved into computer animation, she gained a new appreciation, not only for art, but also for film, theatre, creative writing and music.

“Computer graphics, in its complete form, is interdisciplinary, not belonging strictly in art or science,” says Orr, who spends one night a week figure drawing. “It tends to coax, tease and demand that one stick one’s toes into the ‘other’ world.”

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Animation students Tim Magaki ’09, Alia Yasen ’11 and Morgan Bauman ’11 pull an all-nighter in the lab, setting hundreds of frames for The Cubicle.
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The self-named student group Toast created a computer animation about a sandwich cursed with consciousness.

The petite, soft-spoken professor made another leap six years ago, when she sent out a campus query: Was anyone interested in a cross-disciplinary collaboration with students — one that integrated art with technology? Nord, a one-man orchestra in an office filled with guitars, synthesizers and a dirt-splattered mountain bike, responded immediately. Orr and Nord joined with John Balling, executive director of Willamette’s Integrated Technology Services, and others to write a successful $500,000 Keck Foundation grant to establish an Arts, Technology and Multimedia Minor. They envisioned computers in the sciences talking to computers in the arts, and Orr and Nord volunteered their classrooms for a pilot project that would pair animation students with digital music students to create animated soundtracks. “I just walked into my composition class and said, ‘Hey, does anybody want to do this?’” Mike says. It turns out, his MTV-generation students did.

“Stepping across boundaries as teachers isn’t easy,” Orr says, “because each discipline has its own language and way of thinking, but most of our students are already there. They’re digital natives. They’ve grown up with technology in all aspects of their lives and don’t think twice about mixing computers, text, art and sound. It’s more natural to come together than to remain separate.”

Now in its sixth year, Willamette’s 252 Computer Animation class begins the collaborative process by writing storyboards. The students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, take a careful look at pacing, character motivation, the building of suspense, story resolution, and whether the script will work visually. They also analyze the technical challenges that accompany each sequence — it’s best to work out the kinks before you’re alone in the lab at 3 a.m. “Story is everything,” says Orr, who hopes to extend the collaboration to creative writing students. “If you don’t have a good story, you don’t have a good animation. Though the stories are simplistic, this is really about reading the American psyche into one-minute shorts.”

What Orr probably didn’t realize when she began was that classroom discussions might revolve around sandwich protagonists and the character development of French fries. Toast, one of the self-named student groups, developed a one-minute short about a sandwich cursed with consciousness. The sandwich is horrified when nearby food on the lunch tray begins to disappear. The apple is taken, fries vanish one by one, and the sandwich — large olive eyes popping out of its bread — envisions its demise….

One particularly sophisticated animation illustrates the trickle-down theory of economics: An innocent-looking bunny reaches for a carrot and unwittingly sets in motion a mousetrap- like device whose cranks, gears and levers “trickle down” to the carrot, which delivers a sharp kick to the bunny’s backside.

Each character begins as a simple shape before being modeled with 3-D rendering, textures, shading and lighting. Sets, props and camera angles are added — along with movement. Sometime students recreate sequences 100 times to get them right. A minute of animation requires 60 frames, which computers render into 1,800 frames that play so fast the eye sees them as continuous movement. Students quickly develop a love-hate relationship with the 3-D animation software, AutoDesk Maya 8.5, and on the far side of midnight begin naming animation files “I hate maya” and “annoyed at maya.” “The software takes years to learn,” Orr says. “We only learn a core group of things. I tell students to keep it simple.”

Students don’t think twiceabout mixing computers, text, art and sound. It’s more natural to come together than to remain separate.

Nine weeks into the semester the collaboration becomes even more complex as the “animatics” are handed over to Nord’s digital music class, where seniors will spend three weeks composing digital scores. Technology and its challenges are discussed there as well; the first thing Nord tells his class is, “Technology sucks.” Some people say “computers don’t like me,” he tells them, but machines are just machines. Music composition major Noah Zaves ’09 says, “Technology doesn’t know what you want, only what you tell it. Of course, the problem is that the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ rule always seems to catch up with you at three in the morning just before the project is due — after it’s worked for days.”

Nord asks his students to create original compositions using the studio as their instrument, and he gives them free reign. That means some tracks sound like traditional orchestral pieces and some like art rock and some like aliens just landed. The digital music software, LogicPro, offers hundreds of “banks” of sounds to choose from, including recorded instruments such as cello, taiko drum and church organ, and synthesized sounds with names like Fuzz Box, Urban Bliss and Obersphere. Buttons bend the pitch or add reverb, delay or octave overtones for a lush feeling, and rhythms can be created by playing them on the keyboard, selecting a pre-set synthesized rhythm, or adding feedback to repeated music sequences until the cascading echoes become their own rhythm. One can enlarge the resonance until the sound waves are so big a listener can get lost in them, or hit a button and create a bowed “lost in space” quality. Students can also borrow a trick from hip-hop and take snippets of music that they then radicalize, layer and reconnect. They often overlay several dozen tracks, limited only by their imagination, as the capabilities of the program far exceed the ability of anyone who hasn’t worked with it for years.


NO LONGER JUST FOR NERDS

Some computer students are hardcore techies, Orr says, and others are more artistically inclined, but many tread middle ground, and industry is desperate for those individuals. Computer skills, artistic or not, are in short supply as computer science enrollments continue to plummet at universities across the country. “The U.S. is in danger of falling behind in science and technology, and we need a sense of urgency at the national level,” Orr says.

The shortage of skilled computer professionals has created a bonanza of opportunity, and Orr plays a leading role in organizations and initiatives that encourage young people to take a fresh look at the field. “We’re trying to break the ‘nerd’ stigma and the false perception that there are no jobs because they’re being outsourced,” she says. “The industry is growing, with the peak of the dot com phenomenon higher now than it was in the 1990s. There are few things we do in this society — from running bakeries to managing NASA — that don’t involve computers.”


Some animation groups give composers carte blanche, and others offer careful suggestions. Tim Magaki ’09 asked for a “quasi-Impressionistic” soundtrack that ends with an epic, heroic theme, while Alia Yasen ’11 suggested that each character have its own instrument voice. Many animators want specific actions emphasized in the music tracks, and composers soon discover that timing is everything: If animators add three seconds to the opening sequence, the cannon boom blasts late, musically speaking.

The musicians, most of them from traditional genres, express ease and enthusiasm at working in a virtual world rather than onstage, but some, like Zaves, prefer the energy of real time rather than virtual time. “It’s hard to get as excited about playing music for a microphone. I prefer traditional music, where you can compose and people can re-create it with new interpretations and instruments. With virtual music, you produce it once and it’s done. All you do is push ‘play’.”

But the discussion grows slippery, Zaves says, because music that sounds “traditional” is increasingly produced and performed by machines. Computers now use recorded — rather than synthesized — samples of real instruments, making it difficult to tell the authentic orchestra from the simulated one. And you can turn on the radio and think you’re listening to Brittney Spears, says Zaves, but you’re really listening to voice shavers and pitch correctors. Although many musicians and listeners believe electronic music lacks the artistry of the real thing — a topic that has sparked fortissimo debates worldwide — the divide is rapidly blurring.


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CROSSING THE DIVIDE

David Edwards, Harvard University professor of biomedical engineering, calls for a more integrated paradigm of art and science, saying that innovation in the “post-Google generation” is often catalyzed by those who cross conventional lines between the arts and sciences. “Contemporary creators achieve breakthroughs by developing their ideas in an intermediate zone of human creativity where neither art nor science is easily defined,” Edwards says.

Willamette’s new Arts, Technology and Multimedia Minor encourages interdisciplinary collaborations that combine art and technology. And Willamette’s Ford Hall, scheduled to open in 2009, is dedicated to the creative integration of art and science. It will house an unusual mix of disciplines not traditionally found under one roof — computer science, film studies, music technology, digital arts, mathematics, and rhetoric and media studies. Special features will include Willamette’s first art installation studio, where students can create multimedia or atmospheric art using images, sound, technology, objects and space. A black box recording studio will allow state-of-the-art recording and performance, and an electronic music lab will help further collaborations between computer science and music students.


Many students see advantages to digital music making. Just as radio democratized music, taking opera into living rooms and making Miles Davis accessible to those who couldn’t afford a ticket, technology offers an outlet for artistic expression to those without traditional skills or an instrument. “I’m a vocalist,” Josh Lee ’08 says, “so this is my access to instrumentation.” The talented music major, who favors Puccini arias when he’s not running passes for the Willamette football team, says, “If I had to record these I’d be toast, but I just tell the computer what to do, which is why so many people use this instead of a real orchestra. Obviously this is going to be a big part of music.”

“Some are more open to technology being a more integral part of music,” says music composition major Scott Gerweck ’08. “I think being dogmatic about whether electronics are combined with traditional music is silly. Good music is good music. This is more of a tool than an end, and every tool increases the number of possibilities. The only danger is that it’s sometimes easy for the technical aspects in a class like this to supercede the artistic aspects.”

Technology doesn’t know what you want, only what you tell it.

The technical aspects include animation and digital music software that is increasingly sophisticated. Audio components, external hardware, operating systems and multiple software applications all need to talk to each other — on each computer, in each lab and between labs. And just as one software program is mastered, a new program takes its place. It’s a learning curve that keeps curving as the body of information is reinvented at an exponential pace.

Explorations at the intersection of art and technology are complicated by the rapid pace of innovation, says Helen Mitchell, who teaches creative music technology at the Scarborough School of Arts at Hull University. “It might seem safer to sit on the sidelines, ignoring technology in the arts, but to do so runs the risk of obsolescence and denies the creative possibilities of technology.”

“We are moving from a text-based society to a media-based society, where multimedia is becoming the currency for the exchange of information,” says Nord. Students who read only a handful of books this year will undoubtedly read tens of thousands of web pages and will use technology to find dates, post homework, download songs and buy books.

Universities must find ways to incorporate the virtual world of knowledge with library shelves of Keats and Plato — or become irrelevant — and professors who teach critical reading and writing skills must also teach critical insight into the layers of multimedia that permeate our lives, helping students navigate an overload of eye and ear candy and thoughtfully process information.

The challenges are huge: Technology requires considerable expertise and equipment. And the Millennials sitting in the front row of Sociology 101 are digital natives. They began plunking on keyboards about the same time they learned to walk, while many “digital immigrant” professors have had to learn a new language mid-career. But the opportunities are even larger: Multimedia offers an immensely rich learning environment, one that nurtures imagination and collaboration. The coming world will emphasize convergence rather than specialization, and the borderland where art and science meet will be the place where discoveries unfold. It’s a place Willamette students are beginning to inhabit.

Finals were held on a Saturday afternoon in December. Each group played their animation and MP3 soundtrack and discussed aesthetic goals, technical hurdles and collaboration strategies. Students were elated, and Morgan Bauman ’11, her frantic 5 a.m. lab session behind her, said, “You can create something from nothing. You can create a whole new world.”

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Bunny illustrates the trickle-down theory of economics.

Something from nothing is how it all started. In the beginning, humans stretched leather skin over drumheads, sat around the fire, and sang and told stories. Tens of thousands of years later, their progeny hit “send” to share stories and jokes and news. Our messages and art forms are increasingly stored and transmitted in bits and bytes, and the unity of art and technology has evolved from the possible to the desirable to the inevitable. Perhaps our reach into virtual space is so pervasive and insistent because, after thousands of years, we’ve colonized most of the planet. Virtual space offers a new frontier for this generation’s explorers.

“In this new frontier, we are limited only by our imagination,” Nord says. “Can we create something meaningful? It will take a lot of imagination and trial and error. We have to be willing to fall on our faces in front of our students and learn alongside each other.”

One small word to the wise: When the brave new world starts moving a little too fast, you can always fall back on tradition. You can sit in a darkened Hudson Hall and listen to Josh Lee sing Puccini arias, or hear Scott Gerweck pull lilting sweetness from his trumpet. You can draw figures with Jenny Orr one evening a week or drop by Salem’s gothic Elsinore Theatre for black and white silent movies.

Noah Zaves says some students in orchestra send text messages to friends during every passage they don’t play. “Me personally? I still call,” Zaves says. “When friends ask why I don’t get text messaging, I say, ‘I’d rather just talk to you.’”