Breaking the boundaries of composition

A professor’s passion for electronic music is fueled by software and video games.

Ryan Murphy began playing his electric guitar, while the computer in front of him recorded the track. After a few minutes, he set his instrument on the floor, and the computer continued looping the track, replaying it.

where to go

Project Showcase
What: A presentation of student’s final compositions
When: 5-8 p.m., Sunday, May 4
Where: Room 215, Ferguson

For another five minutes, Murphy used knobs and buttons to manipulate the track he’d just played.

Eventually, the sound out of the speakers was nothing like his guitar – but that’s what he was going for.

Murphy is enrolled in Music 5992, Computer Music Interactive Techniques and Theory, a class that teaches students how to compose electronic music.

Douglas Geers, who teaches the course, said that electronic music depends on electronic gear for the production of a piece of music.

His laptop computer is his instrument, he said.

“The sound is being generated by algorithms and circuits,” Geers said. “It can wind up being glitchy and cool. We play with synthesizers or samples of noise.”

Geers’ class learns to use a software program called Max, which he likened to Photoshop for sound.

“You can shape it, crop it, stretch it, all sorts of things,” he said. “The sound becomes like silly putty.”

That freedom to create is what Murphy, who plays in contemporary rock bands, finds intriguing about electronic music, since most classes in the School of Music are classically oriented.

“They don’t have a contemporary music songwriting course,” Murphy said. “That’s the nice thing with Doug’s class, is that it has that kind of potential for creativity.”

The genre encompasses so much possibility, Geers said, which makes it hard to define.

“It’s a big umbrella. Like jazz, which could be Billie Holiday or John Coltrane, or rock, which could be the Beatles or Black Sabbath,” he said.

‘Beethoven couldn’t do that’

Geers has made a splash in the Twin Cities since he arrived in 2002 from New York.

He founded the Spark Festival of Electronic Music and Art, an annual week-long spring festival to bring together artists from different genres, because he didn’t know anyone when he first moved to Minnesota.

“I wanted to bring in people doing really great work, whether they’re from Lake Minnetonka or Hong Kong,” he said. “It should be a smorgasbord of people and performances.”

Geers, 39, played saxophone and guitar in high school, and was programming games on the family computer when he was 12.

He didn’t plan on a music career when he enrolled at Xavier University in his home town of Cincinnati, but decided to major in music so he could take the upper-level classes.

It wasn’t until he was a graduate student at Columbia University that he discovered the combination of music and electronics.

“When I took my first electronic music class, all these pieces I’d been doing all my life came together,” he said. “By the end of the first quarter, I knew what I wanted to do, so I bought myself my first computer.”

Since then, Geers has been experimenting and “nerding out with software.”

One of Geers’ new ventures with electronic music software is using a Nintendo Wii Remote to amplify live performances.

Typically, when electronic music is performed live, it consists of someone hunched in front of a computer playing with the controls. With the Wii Remotes, performances can become more physical.

“The thing is clearly made for games, but we say, ‘No, it’s now a musical instrument,’ ” Geers said. “My dream is to walk into a coffeehouse with buckets of Wiimotes and say ‘Hey, let’s jam.’ “

In order for that to work, however, everyone would need a computer, and they’d all need to be linked together – like the Princeton Laptop Orchestra did, recently, at a performance at Northwestern University.

Nic Buron, who took Geers’ class last year, has been experimenting with the use of color to create music.

He points a video camera at a white board and programs it to pick up colors drawn on the board. The signal is sent to the computer, which makes a sound based on the color, location and size of the images it picks up.

Buron is still working out the details, but likes the open-ended nature of the Max program.

“It’s amazing because you can do anything you can think of,” he said.

Geers said he likes using the technology to “do what classical can’t.”

“I can download in the sound of a violin and make it sound like Jimi Hendrix with the push of a button,” he said. “Beethoven couldn’t do that.”