Alumni Profile: Creating the Beat of a Different Drummer
When you start at Berklee, you may not know where you'll end up. Barry Threw '04 came to Boston from Illinois playing jazz saxophone and thinking he would engineer commercial pop albums.
However, as he learned, "wherever it is you think that you're going is probably not where you'll end up," he said.
The music production and engineering (MP&E)/music synthesis major, now 26, took his classes in a distinctly noncommercial direction. Now the "music technologist" is part of San Francisco's thriving electronic music scene—programming new ways to make new music and linking the ethereal to the concrete.
He explained, "I do engineer records occasionally, though that's not a major source of my income. I do a lot of programming for new musical interfaces. I do a lot of work with surround sound. And I make my own music. The overarching thing is using cutting-edge technology to enable really advanced and forward-looking media.
"A lot of what I do is help to build technology that enables new forms of musical expression. The tools have to be developed for people to create."
Threw has started to create these at the BEAM Foundation with founder Keith McMillen. The projects grew out of dissatisfactions with current electronic music performance: it isn't necessarily fun to watch, and musicians don't use the instrumental chops they spent years honing. They wanted to "bring live performance and virtuosity into electronic music."
Enter his solution: the electronic string ensemble TrioMetrik. The three performers' instruments are networked through a new computer system called MACIAS. The software lets musicians change sounds, affect each other's sounds, and control live video on the fly.
"What the violin player plays can affect the sound of the bass. The chord the guitar is playing could transpose the key of the instruments," he explained.
There's no sampling and no prerecorded parts. Since the players use traditional instruments, not laptops, the audience has a real performance to watch.
"We use traditional instruments as a bridge so you don't lose all the years of virtuosity. The interface into the system is really familiar. You have a much greater range of sound from the instruments. It opens the sound world," Threw said.
A longer-term plan—creating a scoring system for electronic music—addresses a longer-term problem. As time passes and technology becomes obsolete, some compositions simply can't be performed. The ideal scoring system would be simple and reproducible, so people didn't have to spend years building new instruments or figuring out old ones (unless, of course, they wanted to).
Threw also engineers in a physical environment for experimental music to flourish: the Recombinant Media Labs surround cinema space. Not unlike an OMNIMAX theater, the main room has 10 screens of video with floor shakers and a 16-channel sound system that goes up the walls. Sound becomes spatial.
The idea is to create "a total experience, total immersion," he said. "Artists come in for residencies and create works for the space. There is no other room like it anywhere."
Threw's own music—soundscapes, often improvised—is in the same vein. He described it as "pretty experimental—it's really about sound, composing with sound. It's pretty non-Western. We're not talking a lot of tonal harmony."
Threw credited Berklee with giving him the foundation that has allowed him to explore and develop unusual projects. "Berklee prepared me for a lot of different things," he said. On the creative side, music synthesis professor Richard Boulanger introduced him to experimental music. "His work, it's not only oriented towards commercial sound production. There's also this other, artistic world," Threw said.
For the nitty-gritty, "MP&E really did a good job of grounding the technology. It's really important for me to know that when I build things, they sound good."
Thinking about Berklee students starting out, Threw advised going with the gut to find the right path. "It's incremental. There's not a light that shines down. You just have to keep following what interests you. It shouldn't be something that's filled with anxiety."
Which matters when your career heads in a direction that doesn't have a roadmap. "We're creating a new format. It's like, 'What's the next step,' always."