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imgresWhen the Institute planned the CHAT festival this spring, our primary goal on campus was to inspire faculty to collaborate with one another. One surprising—and rewarding—result that we had not set out to achieve is that faculty might be inspired to collaborate with their undergraduate students.

Allen Anderson, IAH Fellow (Fall 2000) and associate professor of music, did just that. Anderson collaborated with students James Kylstra, Corey Cusimano, Alex Van Gils, Jacquelyn Lee and Eric Boren in a project titled Cicadas in the Clouds and performed by U.N.C.L.E., an acronym for the University of North Carolina Laptop Ensemble, during a student electro-acoustic concert on Feb. 18.

The performance fit like a puzzle piece into the CHAT initiative: Not only was it a collaborative project, but the music also was produced live and digitally via several laptops that used sounds recorded from the audience.

Composition is notoriously a solo process, but Anderson had faith that his students could pull it off for the festival: In spring 2009, Anderson and Kylstra, Van Gils and Boren had collaborated on a composition for the dedication of the Kenan Music Building. CHAT seemed like a good opportunity to try again.

“I saw there was a CHAT festival coming up and that they were interested in collaborative projects,” he said. “I thought it would be good for the music students to be involved in some way. I also knew for us to do anything in the CHAT festival the students had to lead the way.”

Thus formed the model in which Anderson’s students carried as much or more responsibility for the project as he did.

Teaching and Learning Together

The team used singer/songwriter Lee’s song, The Landfill Lot, as the foundation for their composition, even pulling the title for their composition from a line in her song.

“We all agreed to teach ourselves on our own and then teach what we learned to the class, and that is in fact what ended up happening,” recalled Anderson, who also played the role of student in learning a software program for the performance.

From the beginning, the group embraced the collaborative spirit. Anderson described the process as similar to a creative writing class: Everyone shared what they were writing and commented on and critiqued the work.

Anderson’s inspiration for the collaborative model arose from a seminar he attended in fall 2008 at Hyde Hall led by Katherine Hayles, postmodern literary critic and literature professor at Duke University.

“I came away from the lecture with the sense that education could be very much like what happens in a business, where many people, and that includes the students themselves, contribute to working toward a goal,” Anderson said.

As he discovered, Anderson’s students weren’t just contributors; they almost knew it all when it came to digital music.

The students did everything from creating rhythm patches to generating their own digital organ and wind instruments. The performance was very intricate, requiring several different computer programs to run smoothly and team members performing at optimal levels.

Cusimano, a student team member, explained the group’s process: “One of us went out in the crowd and asked for sounds. Someone else recorded the vocal sounds and programmed them into a drum beat, and then other team members added sounds from their synthesizer creations.”

Process Over Praise

One lesson Anderson and his students learned is that innovation does not always beget immediate praise. While the team was very proud of its work, not everyone was impressed. “There were a few critics who didn’t love us so much,” Anderson said.

The team is not letting criticism keep them down because they understand the risks involved with live music, particularly digital performance that relies on audience contributions. “When you have programs set up live and you’re depending on the crowd for input, sometimes you get results that are less than optimal,” Anderson explained.

Anderson’s leadership to create an innovative performance with the U.N.C.L.E. collaboration serves as a model of the CHAT spirit. Through respect for his students’ contributions and in the spirit of the learning process, Anderson united a team of students to produce a quality work and inspired them to trust one another.

“My trust came from [the team] as they guided my learning through an unknown field,” said team member James Kylstra.

Kylstra also commented that while not everyone always agreed on the same course, the team was able to reach common ground by working to understand each other. “We got inside each other’s heads to really see how we work, and it really helped our project advance,” he said.

The students benefited by learning to turn comments on their work into constructive commentary, and Anderson believes that the experience provided valuable lessons in teamwork that the students will take with them into their careers.

One lesson Anderson learned from this positive experience is that collaboration requires the right combination of talent and personalities. “It took the right group of students for this to work,” he said. “But it does raise the interesting possibility that there are team situations that a composer can fit into.”

In particular, Anderson is intrigued by the idea of composers collaborating across disciplines. This particular performance involved musicians, and his students have previously created compositions in response to an artwork, for example.

But Anderson would like to see a collaboration that involved his student composers “working alongside a visual artist or a poet, a lyricist, or a choreographer or any other artistic collaboration that one can think of. I would like to see at least a semester project work that way. The difficulty, of course, is finding the right combinations,” he said.

Collaborating alongside an artist is an area where Anderson has personal experience: In 2008, Anderson partnered with Brooks de Wetter-Smith on ICEBLINK, a multimedia project using de Wetter-Smith’s photographs of the Antarctic Peninsula and Anderson’s musical score.

Both are musicians, but Anderson said, “It felt interdisciplinary because where we were collaborating was primarily the combination of music with photographs, seeing what narrative thread we could make, and we worked on that together.”

More recently, Anderson and his wife, Tama Hochbaum, teamed up on Graffito, which featured his music and her photographs and also debuted at the CHAT festival.
Both the Graffito and Cicadas in the Trees performances were part of a larger collaborative effort, too: the partnership between the music department’s Festival on the Hill and the CHAT festival.

With any collaboration, process can be as significant and as valuable as the end product. For Anderson and his student team, this holds particularly true.

“We were thrilled,” he said. “The artistic merit may not have been as fulfilling as we would’ve liked, but the experience of putting it together was meaningful to us.”

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