Making Music in New College

New College course takes a hands-on approach to music history

Students are making music in New College — but not in the traditional sense.

The students enrolled in Dr. Andrew Raffo Dewar’s NEW 490 Handmade Sounds: A Hands-on History of Electronic Music are following the evolution of electronic sound by creating their own music.

“The primary purpose of the course is to teach students about the history of electronic music,” says Dewar. “One way we do that is by giving them hands-on experiences with many of these historical developments so they can discover for themselves the sense of exploration and experimentation at the root of this history.”

circuit board
A student in Andrew Dewar’s New College course “Handmade Sounds: A Hands-on History of Electronic Music” built this simple two-voice light-controlled synthesizer prototype using found electronics.

Dewar cites the origins of concrete music or musique concrete as an example. In 1940s France, composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry began to experiment using early recording devices to create records of everyday noises such as the wind or squeaking doors, which would then be incorporated into musical compositions. Simultaneously in Egypt, composer Halim El-Dabh was making similar discoveries.

To teach this concept, Dewar sends his students around campus with modern digital recorders to capture the sounds of The University of Alabama. The recordings are then turned into music using the free sound editing software Audacity.

Students gain more than an academic understanding from this process. “This brings the history alive for them,” Dewar says. By applying the knowledge gained, students are retracing the historical foundations of modern music while tapping into their own creativity to construct original works.

In keeping with the highly individualized nature of such a course, students are also encouraged to bring in old toys or salvaged electronics to repurpose into new instruments. They may alter the voice box of a beloved stuffed animal or use a radio as a hand-controlled synthesizer. According to Dewar, this makes students rethink the use of such technologies, “empowering them to be creative with these objects and see what they can come up with.”

Despite the “hacking” of electronics, Dewar’s students are not required to have a background in engineering or any other field. In fact, he calls this “another takeaway from the course — helping students who are nonspecialists with technology feel comfortable and emboldened to experiment.”

New College will continue to offer this innovative course during the May Interim term. Dewar invites anyone interested to enroll. “You can do this, too.”