- Associated Press - Saturday, February 25, 2017

SWEET BRIAR, Va. (AP) - Drums boom across speakers in the new Sound Art Production and Analysis Lab at Sweet Briar College. Rattling that resembles maracas joins in and then is engulfed by a person speaking in Spanish.

Assistant professor of music and composer Joshua Harris and his sound design class listen to the mash-up of different sounds, watching the lines on the big screen move up and down as pitch and rhythm change.

Students Macey Stearns and Sophia Dessart are the artists behind this creation of sound, part of the new class offered at Sweet Briar. Its purpose is to introduce students to the theories of sounds and the tools for creating sound, Harris said.

The projects his 11 students were scheduled to present last week were the first creative works of the class, he said.

Harris said the project required students to record 10 separate and distinct sound samples, edit and combine them into some kind of soundscape or musical composition.

“It made them think about what microphones to use, what effects to choose, and larger questions about design by building three-minute ‘audio sculptures,’” Harris said.

The Spanish words fade into a soft sound of pages turning before piano music fills the room, accompanied by a xylophone and the sound of beeping. The sound of distorted reading takes over the room and the xylophone chimes back in.

The project was inspired by the novel “Los de abajo” (The Underdogs) by Mariano Azuela, Dessart said.

Dessart said she and her partner, Stearns, discussed a “plethora of ideas” for their project but ultimately found they both had a fascination with the literary theme of the “juxtaposition of the illiterate and the literate.”

“While this is a common theme in many books, like ‘Los de abajo,’ we decided to expand on this idea via a new medium - sound,” Dessart said. “Instead of using words to juxtapose education levels, we used sounds that are connotative of variations in culture and education level.”

In their project introduction, Dessart explained to the class the first sounds were “baser sounds” that sounded more native, before she read a passage of “Los de abajo” where the characters talk about the inability to read.

Dessart added the flipping pages of a book symbolized a “cultural renaissance” before “more cultured sounds,” like that of a piano, are played.

Pages turning sound one more time in the near silent room and Stearns finishes the compilation with a passage from “Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri.

“Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost. Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say what was this forest savage, rough, and stern, which in the very thought renews the fear .,” Stearns reads.

After the class applauds, Harris begins a discussion challenging his students to think about the sound apart from the object making the sound.

“Would it be better to listen to sound divorced from its source and not think about what is creating that sound?” Harris asked. “.How would you describe a shaker without saying, ‘it sounds like a shaker”’?

This class is offered through the honors department, Harris said, and is open to all first-year honors students, not just those who are studying music. Concepts and skills taught are “essential” for composers, sound artists, advertisers and more, he said.

One project of the class was to create something that sounded like a Coke commercial, using only sounds made with the soda, such as fizz, a can opening and the liquid being poured out. An upcoming project will have the students make monster sounds from scratch, Harris said.

Dessart, a freshman and double major in business and Spanish, said she is challenged by the technological aspects of the class but its purpose is to “step out of my comfort zone and learn.”

She added she feels proud of her recent sound design project because it was a challenge she overcame.

“I personally believe one of the hallmarks of a liberal-arts education is the ability to explore subject areas beyond your specific education niche,” Dessart said. “This class contributes to my confidence that I can challenge myself and succeed when stepping outside my comfort zone after college.”

Harris said this course is new to the college and this semester marks the first time it’s been taught since they only just acquired the equipment to outfit the studio. He taught composition for almost 10 years in Texas and Oklahoma and came to SBC two years ago. Harris said when he arrived electro acoustic music, computer music and sound art were all things he wanted to bring to the students.

One of the hardest things about getting a course such as this up and running, Harris said, is convincing the students anyone can be a composer.

“It’s maybe a more practical way of thinking about organizing sound and much less limiting than a 19th century ideal of the genius composer - think Beethoven,” Harris said. “That old way of thinking is intimidating for students.”

Dessart said the class has opened her eyes to the “incredible landscape of sounds” she previously took for granted.

“I now find myself deeply contemplating the sounds that make up my environment,” Dessart said. “I have gained a new mindfulness through this class.”


Information from: New Era Progress.

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