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Sounding off on classroom innovation

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Professor Abby Arresty overees students working in her Sound Art course. Photo by Megan Pachner.
Professor Abby Arresty overees students working in her Sound Art course. Photo by Megan Pachner.
Professor Abby Aresty oversees students working in her Sound Art course. Photo by Megan Pachner

Sound is everywhere, from the inaudible pulses of machines’ magnetic fields to the howling of the wind. Some would seek refuge in music but others, like those enrolled in the Music Department’s Sound Art course, embrace this noise regardless of rhythm or tune in the hopes of putting together works that transcend the boundaries of music and art.

The course is taught by Professor Abby Aresty, Music. It emphasizes the potential of sound as a reservoir of material for a creative process steeped in technicality that is nonetheless rooted in what we hear. The source material is concrete, but the education process involves altering the way the students think about sound.

Aresty said that the course’s primary goal “is to introduce students to sound in a completely different context. Most people don’t normally think of sound in the context of art, so [the goal] is to push the boundaries a little bit and think about a field that is not really owned by music, not really owned by art [and] not really owned by anybody.”

Releasing the creative potential of interested students requires not only changing how students conceptualize sound but also giving them the means to explore the world of sound in three different projects due over the course of the semester.

“The second purpose of the class, in some ways the unstated purpose of the class, is to give students a crash course in creativity, in the creative process, and to empower them to find inspiration, think of their own ideas, figure out … what tools and what skills they need to make those ideas happen,” Aresty said.

The four-credit course meets weekly on Monday evenings and utilizes online resources, such as a class Facebook page and a WordPress blog, to help students communicate and collaborate on projects and assignments which are due throughout the week.

Caleb Sponheim ’15, who is enrolled in the course, expressed his excitement at learning from Aresty’s experience in sound art but also emphasized the challenging nature of the course’s content and expectations. Aresty and Sponheim both noted the lack of prerequisites for the course, which has resulted in a class featuring students from diverse majors and with varying levels of technical knowledge.

Although the open-ended course received plenty of praise from Sponheim, who plans to do a project using an Xbox Kinect device to turn his facial expressions into sounds, the fourth-year observed that this self-directed environment can be challenging for students.

“[Professor Aresty] provides us with tools and she provides us with inspiration, but in terms of the actual projects, she’s not giving us that,” Sponheim said. “It’s very much, ‘I’m giving you material, but I’m not going to give you restrictions on the project.’”

As a Mellon Post-Doctorial Fellow, Aresty only teaches one course per semester, which means she can devote her full efforts towards creating an intensely rewarding course for students.

“It’s very demanding. It’s a lot of work. Because this is the only class that she’s teaching, she’s bringing in so much energy into the course and into the material, and she can spend all of her time tweaking the little parts of it and adding little nuances that most professors wouldn’t normally do,” Sponheim said. “That leads to a more complete experience, but it also leads to an initially overwhelming one.”

Everyone is steeped in sound, but those enrolled in the Sound Art course will get a heavy dose of it this semester.

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