UMKC Accepts Its First Music Student Whose Instrument Is The Computer | KCUR

UMKC Accepts Its First Music Student Whose Instrument Is The Computer

May 12, 2016

Tim Harte and his computers.
Credit Courtesy of Tim Harte (photo by Ruby Sue Hanson)

When some people think about a conservatory of music, they might conjure up images of students playing the violin or piano and studying the works of Mozart and Beethoven.

That's about to change.

For the first time, the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance has admitted a student whose instrument is a computer. Tim Harte will be starting in the Conservatory’s composition program this fall.

“I think it took time for me to recognize that I was even using a computer at all,” he told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard.

“It was always in the background. For a long time, it was the cheapest way for me to be able to record,” he added.

Harte says he’s been doing music “forever.” He plays the violin, upright bass and guitar (bass and regular). In high school, he was in a rock 'n' roll band.

His relationship with music evolved into something that's more computer-based.

"The whole time, I was chopping up whatever I was working on, and editing and splicing and turning one instrument into something else using the computer, but I just didn't recognize that that was something that could be a viable instrument."

During his high school band days, Harte says he had a lot of ideas that "didn't fit," and he started working on a variety of instruments. Early on, he started listening to John Cage; he’d take Cage’s prepared piano pieces, put them on tape and tried to get the band to incorporate them.

“It put a lot of ideas into my head about the freedom of being a musician but also being a composer,” says Harte.

Harte describes his sounds as “constantly changing.”

His music has incorporated the slowing down and speeding up of sound, via setting limits on a set of sine waves. He has also mimicked the sound of cicadas, and he's hacked a Sega Genesis to make melodic sounds.

“There are a variety of different hacked toys, video game machines that I process through the computer — or control using the computer is a better way to put it,” he says.

Paul Rudy, a professor of music composition at UMKC, remembers Harte's audition well.

"It was totally unique from anything we'd ever experienced before," Rudy says.

According to Rudy, Harte brought in a couple of "well-used" laptops and networked them together, along with some custom-made devices, a couple of controllers and a keyboard.

"By the time he had gotten everything set up, though, I had a clear sense that he knew his instrument well — not just because he had learned it, but because he had built it himself,” Rudy says.

Even though the idea of composing music on a computer isn’t new, there’s a reason why UMKC is just now accepting its first student who lists the computer as his instrument.

"There is a historical tradition and practice that has guided the conservatory — not just our conservatory, but all schools of music — that is well rooted in a long, long-standing practice, and those things are hard to change," says Rudy.

"To me, it takes compelling students like Tim who clearly have mastery of something that falls outside of our established categories."

"So I'm going to be learning from Tim, and that's the other cool thing about this. I have no idea how he does most of what he does," says Rudy, who also composes pieces on the computer.

As for Harte, who is enrolling as an older, non-traditional student, the benefits of studying at a conservatory are clear.

“It’ll teach me to be a real composer,” Harte says. “Because right now, I feel like using a computer is kind of a stand-in for all of the instruments that I actually want to use, which are violins and cellos and flutes and harps.”

“The computer is definitely an instrument, but it’s an instrument that I would like to see in the context of all of those other instruments,” he says.

“And I have to go to school to learn it.”

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.