CalArts Goes Global with Experimental Pop Collaboration

Innovation
By: 
John Barnette

Emily Evans, Co-Director of the Experimental Pop Program at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), is using her ingenuity and expertise to reshape instruction with a global perspective. Over the past year, she has brought together a group of 40 students along with artists from the US, UK, Ghana, Uganda, Brazil, Egypt, Colombia, Japan, Germany and France to participate in a collaborative songwriting project. Evans was supported by Soundtrap and used the online studio to produce a variety of compositions recorded and mixed remotely by CalArts students with vocals and instrumentation added by handpicked artists from around the world.

 

Crossing borders despite lockdown

In March of 2020 when the pandemic lockdown commenced, Evans found herself having to rethink her instruction without in-person access to campus studios for students. Normally, in her class, Production is Composition, The Studio as Instrument, students work with in-studio tools. Without that possibility, she creatively adapted, expanding her vision based on years of experience with international artists. “I started thinking about this idea of remote collaboration and the intercultural possibilities that in and of itself could be a format for generating interesting compositions,” says Evans. “If all the students are remote, it doesn’t matter where anyone lives, so why not have artists from all over the world come to do a project and participate in this class. We’re all in the same boat.”

In light of these changes, the course adopted a new name: Global Studios and Audiotopias. Evans reached out to previous partners she’d had in the UK while running Green Door Studio, a recording studio and community access space in Scotland that promotes self-produced work focused on Pop aesthetics mixed with technology learning. With the help of the radio station DubLab and record labels Sublime Frequencies and Mais Um Discos, she soon had an incredible list of international artists to choose from. “It started with a playlist that I showed to the students in the class and we narrowed it down from there,” recalls Evans. She contacted the artists, explaining the collaborative all-remote concept with CalArts students and the exciting project was launched.

 

New sponsor supports access and collaboration across nations

With a collection of international musicians at the ready and her students in remote settings, Evans realized that a user-friendly online recording tool would be essential. In contrast to other digital audio workstations (DAWs) familiar to Evans, Soundtrap offered online collaborative functionality in an uncomplicated format perfect for all to quickly learn and use. She reached out to them and found an enthusiastic sponsor―access to the online studio was provided to all participants. 

“They were wonderful and I don’t think we could have done the project without their sponsorship,” adds Evans. “There are artists in Uganda for instance, who don’t have a laptop, who might just have an iPad or their iPhone. Many people have different protocols and there’s no way we could have done something with another DAW that required a more sophisticated installation or specific devices.”

Accessibility was key and using the program as a sketchpad for quick vocal and instrumental sharing proved enormously beneficial. “The fact that someone could just log in and be on it instantly without downloading drivers or having different accounts to sign in made it accessible for everyone,” says Evans. Artists were able to sing a vocal “sketch” into their phone and share it with the students even if they then chose to redo the take in a traditional studio later.

Asynchronous collaboration made possible by the program’s features inspired users to work together across time zone differences. “Students could work on it in their time and then later that night or in the morning a person in Egypt could log on to add a synth part,” explains Evans, giving one example of the collaboration. The group collaborated in real-time but also at different times to see what everybody was building and using the chat feature to talk about the projects.

 

An eclectic mix becomes more than the sum of its parts

An eclectic mix of students with a diverse variety of musical backgrounds―which Evans describes as “in-between genres”―are enrolled in the CalArts class. The teaching methodologies for the project are similar to other classes in the Experimental Pop Program, with restructuring done by Evans and co-director Eyvind Kang. There is an emphasis on experimentation that uses technology to shape and style music to revise and enhance self-produced works. This approach works perfectly with the international artists whose different backgrounds and musical visions consistently surface new song ideas.

For remote learning, one class was conducted with the following structure:

  1. Class begins with a group session for everyone.
  2. Students use Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to examine and overcome creative roadblocks. Each student is then asked to come up with strategies as prompts for motivation.
  3. Everyone works together for an hour on the same multi-track composition.
  4. Groups of four break off with copies of the multi-tracks to take in different directions. This demonstrates how malleable and modular a composition can be.
  5. The teacher checks in on student work virtually. Students send a link of their work indicating the tracks to check. Feedback is given, including remix suggestions using ProTools to show how students can go back and forth between different DAWs. The file is then exported and sent back to students.

Over the course of each semester, students continually stretch their creative ideas and hone their production expertise working with the global set of artists to expand their concepts. Evans encourages open spacing in composition to allow for a call and response effect when working with guest artists sharing acapella or instrumentally. “They have a theme or a concept and everyone creates a part based on that concept,” adds Evans. The first run of the course resulted in a 33-song album uploaded to SoundCloud.

On the final day of class for each semester, all the international artists and the CalArts students meet for the first time on a big Zoom call to share their finished works. Evans finds it especially rewarding to see the joyful reactions of the students as they respond to the completed work.

Even though CalArts is mixing in-person with virtual this year, Evans is continuing the class remotely as the format proved highly effective last year. She plans on perfecting the approach and using the program to work on compositions in what she describes as “the human signal chain” moving from one collaborator to the next in boundless iterations. As the class continues into the future, she has aspirations of picking the best selections from all semesters to formally send out to a label.

 

Celebrating, continuing, and perfecting the project

On the final day of class for each semester, all the international artists and the CalArts students meet for the first time on a big Zoom call to share their finished works. Evans finds it especially rewarding to see the joyful reactions of the students as they respond to the completed work.

Even though CalArts is mixing in-person with virtual this year, Evans is continuing the class remotely as the format proved highly effective last year. She plans on perfecting the approach and working on compositions in what she describes as “the human signal chain” moving from one collaborator to the next in boundless iterations. As the class continues into the future, she has aspirations of picking the best selections from all semesters to formally send out to a label.

Evans shares an interesting final reflection on the collaborative process of an early recording effort before the advent of online tools. She and her husband flew from Scotland to Belize and Ghana assembling recorded tracks in person only to then return back to Glasgow for finalization. “Now, we can actually do this without having to travel,” she says with a smile.

 

About the author

John Barnett is a managing editor and writer in the education space. In addition to educational publications, he has worked creatively in the entertainment industry, including credits in film and television. John recently moved from Southern California to the mountains of Colorado, where he enjoys the outdoor life and caring for his son.

Tags: 

Recent Articles

Thoughts

Grades… few topics in education spurn debates, emotions, and strong views like grades

By: 
Kevin Dorsey & Zach Vander Veen