I imagine that in a lot of totally fundamental ways, pitching a university to let you teach a new course must be a lot like pitching a tech article to a mainstream magazine. It all starts with throwing random words at a sheet of brainstorming paper, then cynically deciding that while “iPhone: the future of music composition” is clearly ridiculous, it would look good as a headline [in the course catalog], so let’s see where it gets us anyway. Quickly inducing hyperventilation in order to simulate breathless excitement, you pick up the phone, call your editor [department head] and shout: “The iPhone is the future of music! No one else has done it before, so we’ll be at the forefront, reporting [teaching] about a fantastic new era meshing technology and art!”
Yes, go forth, my son. Fortune favors the bold! Do your job right and if you’re a tech journalist, you’ll make about $800. But if you’re a university professor, like Georg Essl of the University of Michigan? You may just have taken your first step towards tenure!
Essl is an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, as well as the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, but he’s teaching students at the University of Marylan how to design, program and play instruments on their Apple iPhones as part of a course called “Building a Mobile Phone Ensemble.” The course appears to teach students how to take advantage of all aspects of the hardware — the touchscreen, microphone, GPS, compass, WiFi sensor and accelerometer — in order to make pleasing sounds, then encourages students to write compositions for their iPhones.
“The mobile phone is a very nice platform for exploring new forms of musical performance,” Essl said. “We’re not tethered to the physics of traditional instruments. We can do interesting, weird, unusual things.
In the same way that sometimes a really good tech article can come out of a topic that at first appears silly, Essl’s program actually seems like a lot of fun, teaching students about the ways music and tech can be amalgamated in an intuitive way that also — hey, score! — nets them a cool new iPhone.
If you’re interested in seeing Essl’s iPhone orchestral ensemble perform, they’ll be having a free concert at the University of Michigan on the evening of December 9th, or you can see a video of them performing a piece called “Groan” here. There’s also a Facebook page for the group.