Department of Visual and Performing Arts

Matt Malsky, a classically trained composer and associate professor of music and director of the communications and culture program, specializes in computer music and multimedia. Learn more about his research, including his toy piano project, below.

What do you think the computer adds to the music?

Prof. Malsky: I think that it's a way of bridging two worlds. My argument is that the computer is the premiere example of a contemporary musical instrument. When Beethoven was writing, he used the piano. Well, the piano was a brand new instrument at the time. In a sense, you can think of a piano as a kind of technology, and what attracted Beethoven to it were the things he could do musically that no one could do before. For example, you could play both loud and soft.

Electronic instruments offer similar kinds of resources to contemporary composers. They certainly have ties to the past but combining those instruments with electronics offers a whole new palette that was never accessible before. You can do things only imagined in the past. Now they're possible.

Do you only teach courses in digital music or that involve the computer?

Prof. Malsky: I actually teach a very wide range of classes. I think this is characteristic of our department. Although we're small, we offer an enormous range of things. I teach a full range of traditional music classes such as music theory, counterpoint and twentieth century music theory, and classes in music analysis and history.

But I also teach a full range of classes in computer music and multimedia. In fact, students who major or minor in music can also earn a concentration in computer music or music technology. We have an introductory level class that introduces students to the idea of the computer as a musical instrument. That class has a big project where they compose a soundtrack for a piece of digital video. I also teach a soundtracks course and upper level digital music composition courses.

Do you get many non-music majors taking your courses?

Prof. Malsky: I see a lot of students that are as dedicated to music as the music majors but aren't necessarily going to go on and make it their career choice. There are management, geography and psychology majors. There's always a strong complement of kids coming from computer science combining the technological end of things with the musical end. What's common to them all is that they are driven by a passion for music, and I think in a lot of ways, they're as interesting as the music majors because they're combining their interest in music with other things.

Do your classes ever cross over with the other classes in the Visual & Performing Arts department?

Prof. Malsky: In a sense, we tried to institutionalize that in terms of the facilities when the department moved to the Traina Center for the Arts. The third floor is shared by all five departments. The idea was that we would share a central lab of computers where different kinds of classes would be taught, and there would be specialized spaces around the perimeter. So there is a high-end post production room, and there are four digital video editing suites up here as well as a seminar room. Because students from across all disciplines are all working together and because Visual & Performing Arts is really one department, we're able to help the students make those kinds of connections. So, right from the beginning, my computer students are thinking in terms of writing music and doing sound effects for video. And by the time they get to the advanced end of the program, they are working in conjunction with the video students doing soundtracks at a very high level. In fact, my soundtracks class is cross-listed with the screen studies program, and it has three constituencies: music students (particularly music technology students); screen students and communication and culture students. They bring three very different kinds of perspectives and three different kinds of skill sets to the question of how audio and music combine with image tracks; each bringing their own kinds of talents.

What technology do you and your students use for composing?

Prof. Malsky: My intro classes don't presume any musical experience or any music technology experience. We begin with a desktop computer as a musical instrument and, because we're Mac-based, we use entry-level tools like Garage Band and iMovie. We use software that I've designed to teach synthesis. In the more advanced classes, we move on to more specialized tools in the Estabrook Digital Recording Studio, which is a dedicated facility that's all Pro Tools based. There, students learn how to use microphones, cables, mixing consoles and digital audio recorders. Pro Tools is really the industry standard, so it's really imperative that students learn it before they go out into the world. Nine out of ten recording studios use it.

The advanced students work with a variety of other tools. We have specialized synthesis systems. My own work is with a programming environment called Max/MSP where you design digital signal networks combining acoustic instruments with live computer processing. For example, a solo flute plays music that I've written, while at the same time a microphone feeds a computer, which produces music in real time with the live performer.

How many instruments do you play besides the computer?

Prof. Malsky: As a composer, I play everything because you're really required to know how all instruments work at every musical level. Trombone and double bass are the two instruments I specialized in. But these days, I don't perform except behind a computer!