Profile: BIAI Artistic Director Neil Leonard

Berklee professor of Electronic Production and Design Neil Leonard started out as a visual artist. A Philadelphia native, when he became interested in music in high school, he found himself drawn to locally based synesthetic ensembles like the Sun Ra Arkestra, which fused music, art, dance, film, poetry, and performance.

After completing a degree in jazz performance at the New England Conservatory, Leonard took a job in the Massachusetts College of Art’s digital media lab. There, he worked with avant-garde composer John Cage, video installation artist Tony Oursler, and other luminaries in the burgeoning field of interdisciplinary arts, and he had works featured at the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial, the Venice Biennale, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Because of his musical chops and wide-ranging experience, Berklee brought Leonard aboard in 1993 to teach Electronic Production and Design, and to help with Berklee’s nascent multimedia curriculum. When senior vice president for Academic Affairs/provost Larry Simpson announced plans to create an Interdisciplinary Arts Institute at Berklee, Leonard was a natural choice for artistic director.

As a composer, his work has been featured in Carnegie Hall, the International Computer Music Conference in Montreal, and high art venues from the Havana Jazz Festival to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As a performer, he has shared the stage with a long list of esteemed performers and recording artists, including Victor Bailey, the Boston Ballet, Uri Caine, Bill Frisell, John Medeski, Steve Swallow, and many more.

As passionate as he is about his own work, Leonard brings an equal amount of fire to his teaching. “I believe strongly in mentorship,” he says. “I want to throw students into real-world experiences and let them find their way, let them figure it out, but with enough guidance that they can get something done. And once they know they can accomplish things, they have the confidence to go out on their own and try stuff. That’s a big part of what being an artist is all about: just have the courage to go out and try things.”

Leonard has guided students toward experiences in collaborative composition and performance at the national theater of Cuba; an intervention (a spontaneous art happening) of performance artists, musicians, and dancers at the Venice Biennale in the Piazza San Marco; and a multimedia performance with folkloric Chinese musicians at Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Leonard credits Berklee with making these kinds of experiences possible. “The administration has really gotten behind the idea of interdisciplinary arts,” he says. “If it wasn’t for the enthusiasm of [Berklee president] Roger Brown and the financial support of generous donors like the George Macomber Family Charitable Fund, we would never have been able to launch the BIAI in such an ambitious way.”

One of the institute’s early achievements was a trip to Cuba in which students had two weeks to compose an hour of music, working side-by-side with Cuban artists—including electronic musicians; an Afro-Cuban folkloric ensemble; a Latin jazz ensemble; hip-hop artists; visual artists; and a string quartet—and then performing their work at locations across the country. They didn’t believe they could produce work that fast, but learned they were capable of it. When it was done, they got to present it at the Teatro Nacional de Havana and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and they were featured on national television. It was a transformative experience for many of them, who are now exploring career options they didn’t know existed. “It was great,” says Leonard. “They really grew, and understood how important it was to be ambassadors for Berklee and the United States, and to build cultural bridges with music.”

The institutional and financial support has enabled the BIAI to expand its offerings, and this semester Leonard will be co-teaching a class with MIT Professor Gediminas Urbonas. “This could only happen in Boston,” says Leonard, “where you have the world’s leading contemporary music college right across the river from one of the world’s leading technological institutions. I don’t know what the students are going to come up with, but that’s what makes it so fun.”

BIAI students recently collaborated with MC, producer, poet, and educator Mike Ladd, and will soon work with pioneering audio artist Robin Rimbaud, also known as “Scanner,” and synthesist Richard Devine. Leonard, whose work was recently recognized with a Distinguished Faculty Award, is sanguine about the future: “Things are just getting started,” he says, “but it’s exciting to see how many people are realizing the potential of the Interdisciplinary Arts Institute.”