First students in Multimedia Arts Technology program to graduate

contact: Mark Schwerin
| WMU News
Photo of a student running a sound board.

From left: Nate Elkus and Dr. Christopher Biggs

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The first graduates of Western Michigan University's new Multimedia Arts Technology program are set to receive their diplomas April 30 and embark on new careers in high-tech, professional music production.

The students have been feverishly working on capstone projects that put an exclamation mark on their academic careers. Projects undertaken by those set to graduate this month range from full-length albums of original music to a new computerized enhancement tool that trains the human ear to better recognize and identify frequencies.

About the program

The program started with 20 students in fall 2014, with 20 more added each year after that. Demand for the new program has been very high, says Dr. Richard Johnson, assistant professor of music, who helps run the program with Dr. David Loberg Code, associate director of the School of Music and director of the Kalamazoo Laptop Orchestra; Dr. Christopher Biggs, assistant professor of music; and John Campos, manager of the Western Sound Studios.

"When we're each year looking to admit around 20 students and we are interviewing over 60, there's a lot of interest going on," Johnson says.

The program revolves around five foundational pillars: audio engineering, computer generated audio technology, live sound reinforcement, computer programming and multimedia technology. Students do not have to be traditional music students. In fact, program organizers are looking for students with diverse, often nontraditional musical backgrounds and diversity in career goals, Johnson says. They've been successful in both areas.

"We have students who are interested in doing sound design that goes with video. We have students who want to be the classic sound engineer in a recording studio, and then we have students who are doing electronic dance music," Johnson says. "That diversity of students coming together makes it fun to be on the faculty side of things."

Students graduating from the program April 30 exemplify that diversity and energy.

Garrett Gagnon

Graduating senior Garrett Gagnon actually started out majoring in mechanical engineering. But music has always held its sway. He has played music since he was 4 and carried that interest into high school. After coming to WMU, he joined the Collegiate Singers choral ensemble.

"By the end of my freshman year, singing in the choir, I just couldn't stay away from it," Gagnon says. He was accepted into the School of Music and studied voice for a year. His junior year, the MAT program was announced and he found he could switch majors and still graduate on time.

"It seemed like a win-win," Gagnon says.

About 18 months ago, Gagnon, who is from Portage, started working with musician and composer Max Hahn on a project for an Electronic Music Techniques class. The pair put together a piece two to three minutes long, then expanded it and added additional pieces for an Aesthetics in Music class.

When deciding on his capstone project for the MAT program, it made sense to continue working on the piece, more or less serving as producer. A piano player and drummer, he performed on it, recorded and mixed parts, suggested arrangements and did "everything outside the composer realm."

The piece now has a half-dozen movements running the gamut from upbeat '80s-style music to a drum section to an electronic piano section and a section with vocals by Gagnon. Gagnon presented the composition, now 25 minutes long, at a special event April 22, in the Dalton Center Lecture Hall featuring capstone projects by MAT graduates.

"I guess this was a good place for me to finally end up," he says, "given my involvement in music being a vocal performance major. But I wasn't interested in ending up being an opera singer. It really seemed like the perfect end place for me."

Nate Elkus

Fellow MAT student Nate Elkus has taken a technical approach to his capstone project, creating a computerized frequency recognition tool to train the human ear to identify frequencies more accurately. His creation, which he named Sound Hero, works for all levels of ability, starting with basic identification of low, mid and high frequencies and how to differentiate them.

"Each level gets tougher and tougher," Elkus says. "At the highest level, basically I'm throwing a random sine tone and you have to tell me what it is and you have to be a third of an octave away."

Elkus, who is from Bloomfield Hills, has studied piano since age 6 and began studying piano at WMU. Not sure whether he wanted to study composition or performance, he took some classes in studio recording, then tried out for the MAT program after it was announced.

"It was the perfect fit," says Elkus, who also presented his project at the April 22 event. He has decided to delay graduation one year to earn a general business minor and possibly a computer programming minor.

Joel Pixley-Fink

Like Gagnon, fellow MAT student Joel Pixley-Fink of Kalamazoo has created a compilation of different musical styles. His creation now runs 27 minutes and features everything from jazz arrangements of two Stevie Wonder songs; "Bloodmoon," an original reggae tune; "Moving Towards the Sun," an original song by his sister, Elisabeth; and "Waiting for my Time," an ambient original. He presented his project at an earlier event for MAT capstone projects.

"It showcases all of my different interests, says Pixley-Fink, who plays bass, keyboards and guitar and played with the band Maraj and local reggae group Zion Lion. "I'm interested in a lot of different things, so I wanted to represent a bit of each of them."

In the near future, new graduate Gagnon hopes to have his own studio space for rehearsals and to work on music and audio full time. The MAT program has been a great fit for him.

"It's given me a lot of options and taught me a lot of different skills," he says. "The professors have all been really good and helped push me to another level."

For more information about the program, visit wmich.edu/multimedia.

For more news, arts and events, visit wmich.edu/news.