Electronic music has come a long way in seventy years, since the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Automatic Computer in Australia made history as one of the first computers to chirp out a crude tune in 1951. These days, aspiring EDM and hip-hop producers in their basements now have access to an infinite number of instruments and ways to combine and manipulate them with the click of a button.
Even the University of Colorado Denver is offering students a focus in what academics have dubbed the Electronic Digital Instrument — an ever-evolving combination of computers, MIDI controllers, software, keyboards and beyond — as a focus available to students within the College of Arts and Media. So far, instructors have come up with four courses that can be incorporated into a variety of four-year degrees the university offers in music. EDI students also study music theory, history and ear training.
In spite of the ubiquitousness of electronic music, the classes now being piloted at CU Denver are rare. The Berklee College of Music in Boston is one of the only other places a student can study the electronic digital instrument at a university level. (In fact, CU borrowed the EDI term from Berklee, which started its program earlier this year.)
Richard Strasser, chair of the Music and Entertainment Industry Department at CU Denver, says faculty made a conscientious decision to bring in a concentration in EDI to keep up with what he feels is the progressive nature of the music department at the university. Music, he says, is a constantly evolving art form, and it was important for the school to be able to teach the next generation of musicians, regardless of whether they choose to make music with a violin or on a touch screen.
“If a student is really interested in EDM and getting a music degree, what we now offer is for that student to do rigorous training on electronic digital instrument and use that instrument, which is as valid as the piano or guitar or what have you,” Strasser says. “This is a seismic shift we are making.”
Strasser says the program is now in its first semester, a pilot version of what faculty hopes is a long-term change, and interest has been high among students.
“We’ve been flooded overwhelmingly with students saying, ‘I’d like to change my instrument to this. I’d like to explore this,’” he says. “It’s because we’ve seen such a strong interest. We want this to be a part of how this defines us as a music institute.”
CU Denver student Johnny Pesce has been taking a class on using music-making program Ableton Live and the MIDI controller as part of the new program. Pesce, who is seeking his bachelor's degree in recording arts, says he incorporates the software into his band, Louphonic, and has been learning how to use it more effectively. He’s an accomplished bass player, and he switched to studying EDI, which he didn’t know as well, as a way to learn some “tricks of the trade” from professors.
“They help you tie it all together,” Pesce says.
Although Pesce uses the EDI as part of an ensemble, it’s also a way for a solo musician to effectively have an orchestra inside a laptop.
“It’s pretty cool,” Pesce says. “A lot of kids who may not have musicianship skills or the ability to put together a band, they can make music and put together a set, play keys and launch their drums. It’s pretty much a one-man band.”
Todd Reid, percussion area coordinator for CU Denver, says faculty has wanted to start an EDI program, but it was delayed several years because an accreditation body balked at the idea of a computer as a musical instrument. After the faculty voted to strike out on its own about a year and a half ago, the door was opened for the program to begin in earnest.
“The difference between a synthesizer with a keyboard and my laptop with a [MIDI controller] is the interface,” he says. “They are doing the same thing. The people that might argue that you can’t consider a computer a musical instrument — well, the only difference is the interface. Under the hood, it’s all doing the same thing.”
For more information, visit ucdenver.edu.