Imagination. Creativity. Local and world histories. Art. Theatre. Music. Design. Michigan Tech’s first arts-focused study abroad is an immersive experience. Students from many campus majors are taking part: from Theatre and Sound Design, Humanities, and Chemistry, to Biomedical and Environmental Engineering. The trip focuses on art, theatre, architecture, and culture, with a special emphasis on the Prague Quadrennial, one of the largest theatre design events in the world. Students explore world heritage sites, study works of art in museums and galleries, attend performances, and reflect on local/global history, culture, and connection. The trip is open to all majors and is designed for students whose interests benefit from creativity and new perspectives – in other words, everyone. Follow us on the trip blog and on Instagram.
The Keweenaw is awash in the sounds of nature. The cold north wind whistling through the birch trees at Fort Wilkins. The waves of Lake Superior slapping the agates along Bete Gris. The water whooshing through the rocks at Hungarian Falls. The loons conversing at dusk against the red and orange brilliance of the sky. It is the place for Libby Meyer, a teaching professor in Michigan Technological University’s visual and performing arts department and director of the music composition program, to create her art. To draw inspiration from her surroundings. “By giving a voice to the landscape and its inhabitants, my hope is to express this fragile relationship that we all share and need to sustain.”
You can hear that voice clearly in her latest CD release To What Listens. The CD project was funded by a grant from the University’s Research Excellence Fund Scholarship and Creativity Grants program. The recordings of choral and chamber works on Albany Records feature performances from the Capella Clausura conducted by Amelia LeClair and the Juventas New Music Ensemble.
The CD opens with “For Johnny B,” an arrangement of a movement from Lakescape, an orchestral work commissioned by the Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra and funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Park Service in honor of the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service. “For Johnny B” celebrates the Keweenaw National Historical Park. The lyrics were crafted from an oral history of Giovanni “Johnny” Battista Perona, a farmer, laborer, custodian, master musician on spoons, bones, and concertina as well as a butterfly enthusiast from Calumet.
In “Melusina Calls to the Loon,” Libby captures the sounds of life on Isle Royale National Park, where she was an artist in residence in 1999. On walks, Libby would make up stories to fit the sounds surrounding her. On one particular walk, she imagined a melancholy conversation between a mermaid and a loon, each enchanted by the music of the other.
The title track “To What Listens” is a set of five poems by Wendell Berry, poet, farmer, and environmental activist. These brief poems give birds a voice and use music inspired by bird songs, reminding us only by being fully present can we appreciate the beauty that is right now. The liner notes encourage, “Habitat loss is causing the woods to become quieter, so it is more important than ever that we listen to ‘the hidden singers.”
From Violin Lessons to Performances to Composition
Her music career started early with violin lessons from her musician father. Passion for music burned. She pursued a degree in music performance at Michigan State, but a broken arm made playing the violin painful. Instead, she started to compose and switched her major to theory and composition.
Composing was never presented to me as an option. It was something other people did and not a lot of other people did it. However, I realized that a bachelor’s in composition was less than worthless, so I decided to apply to grad school and I got in.
Northwestern offered Libby a full ride. “Chicago had great opportunities with lots of music, so it seemed like a great choice,” she says. Libby loved the energy of living in Chicago and the activity the city offered. “There is a lot of concrete in Chicago.”
Libby Meyer Finds Her Home in the Upper Peninsula
It wasn’t long before she decided to trade the concrete of Chicago for the timbers of the Upper Peninsula. “I had the great fortune to be selected as an artist in residence at Isle Royale National Park. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would become a life-altering experience. One that inspired me to leave Chicago without any real plan and move to the U.P. where I now make my home these many years later. Upon arrival at the park, I was immediately fascinated by the novel sights and sounds all around me; so different from the soundscapes of Chicago. It was here that I heard a white-throated sparrow for the first time and was so transfixed that I spent the following weeks trying to identify all the sounds that I was hearing. Each night walking from my cabin I would hear the calls of the loons, the chattering of squirrels, the chirping of frogs, bird songs, and the motion of Lake Superior.”
That the great outdoors has become her muse is no surprise given her introduction to it on Isle Royale. She admits it is hard to separate her work from the Keweenaw, whether it’s bugs in the summer or snow the other nine months of the year. Or the lake. “The lake is my little nirvana,” she says. It inspires her to create new sounds.
New sounds are a welcome addition to the local community of talented musicians. They are always willing to play something new and different. “If I write something I can get it played. The best thing about being a composer is writing something and having someone play it,” she says. It is just one of the joys of being a musician in this place.
The Joys Music Brings to Libby
In talking to her, it is clear music is front and center. She loves to see what she can do with music. Libby creates her own music and sounds, using what she hears in nature for inspiration. Here in Houghton, the inspiration is unencumbered by the white noise of the big city. Plus, Michigan Tech offers other advantages to being a composer. If she writes something she is confident it can be played. And writing something and hearing it played brings her the most joy.
Another joy for Libby is nurturing music in her students; seeing the excitement they get by writing music. She loves how curious and creative the students are; especially since most downplay their creativity. For Libby “Art is less a creation and more an allowing.” Students need that space where they are allowed to create. And particularly here at Michigan Tech where most pursue studies outside of music. “Students here get opportunities to play they would never get anywhere else.” It makes her feel like an ambassador.
Libby loves finishing a piece. When she starts a piece, she never really knows how it is going to go. Seeing it come together is really satisfying. For example, Libby was asked to write a piece to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Frederick Law Olmsted’s (social reformer and founder of American landscape architecture) birth. Given her love of Michigan, she chose to compose a piece about Belle Isle, a park in Detroit designed by Olmsted. While doing the research, she learned Olmsted quit the project. Instead, she decided to focus on the native wildflowers Olmsted incorporated into his landscape designs. It became “Beauty of the Fields.” Listen to Libby talk about Belle Isle and “Beauty of the Fields.”
Finishing To What Listens was a bit of a challenge for Libby. Getting musicians together to rehearse and record in a studio during a pandemic was never going to be easy. However, Libby was patient and determined. And now she can add finishing To What Listens to the list. We cannot wait to hear what new sounds Libby creates and adds to her list of created works.
For most students at Tech, Career Week means ”Lights! Camera! Action!” To prepare, students need to research the roles they are interviewing for and the companies they will be interviewing with. They rehearse responses to typical interview questions and dress appropriately for the interview. The typical Career Fair experience for Visual Performing Arts (VPA) department students is no different.
Just as the giants of the automotive, chemical, consumer products, and other industries converge on Houghton to hire outstanding engineers, so do the major players in arts and entertainment. They are looking to hire full-time employees and this summer’s interns. It all kicks off this week with virtual presentations from half-a-dozen companies. Each will present what makes them unique, why students should work for them, and which jobs they are hiring for. Most presentations are led by Tech alums, which gives students a unique insight into how to be more successful when competing for jobs at their company.
VPA Students Have Skills and Potential
“Students from Michigan Tech not only engage in areas of study that are applicable to our industry, but more importantly they have the potential and capacity to expand their knowledge and learn what is required to contribute to the services we offer based on that core education. We are a niche company providing a unique set of services, and it is more important to have the ability to learn new skills quickly and easily than to already know a particular skill,” said Jason Pontius of Smart Monkeys. Smart Monkeys build some of the most technologically advanced entertainment systems in the world for clients including Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Gardens, and Universal Studios Orlando.
“Tech students are grounded in physical sciences and math, and those are quite important for the work that we do (design consulting for performing arts facilities). We need young candidates who have exposure to a wide variety of entertainment practices, and one of the strengths of Tech’s VPA programs is that it doesn’t pigeonhole students in the way that a lot of programs do. As a result, they are ready to consider things outside of one track of experience, and that’s a valuable skill for design consultants in my world to have,” Josh Loar, Senior Consultant (AV) of Charcoalblue LLC., a consulting firm working on everything from concert halls to theme parks.
Recruiting Companies at Michigan Tech During Career Week
This week’s visitors and their presentations include:
Lighthouse Productions, located in Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a full-service production company offering sound, lighting, roof systems, staging, and related services to clients across the Midwest. They are hiring for their 2023 Production Training Internship Program which runs from Late May through August.
Feb. 14, 12:15 pm Walker 210 and Google Meet
Sante Fe Opera, located in New Mexico, offers a top-notch production environment with artisans of all stripes.
Feb. 14 @ 2:25 pm Walker 210 and Zoom
McKay Conant Hover is an acoustical and AV consulting firm designing concert halls, educational facilities, theatres, and more. Join their live session to learn more about consulting as a career.
Feb. 15 @ 2 pm Walker 212 and Zoom
Charcoalblue is a consulting firm working on everything from concert halls to theme parks for clients across the globe. Theatre, acoustic, project management, and digital design runs in their blood.
Feb. 17 @ 4 pm Walker 210 and Microsoft Teams
8th Day Sound, located in Cleveland, OH, is one of the largest live concert tour companies in the world. They are looking for team-oriented professionals who are passionate about sound and seeking to begin their careers in touring audio. They offer a 12-week paid internship and hires have worked on tours for Kendrick Lamar, MonstaX, and Stray Kidz to name a few.
Feb. 20 @ 1 pm, Walker 210 and Zoom
Smart Monkeys build some of the most technologically advanced entertainment systems in the world for clients including Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Gardens, Universal Studios Orlando, the Smithsonian, and the Big-O experience in South Korea.
Feb. 20 @ 5 pm Walker 210 & Zoom
Contact Christopher Plummer For More information
What are you doing this Monday night 10/24 at 6 ET? Grab a bite with Mike Christianson, Associate Professor, Visual and Performing Arts and Director of Bands at Michigan Tech. Joining in will be two members of the Huskies Pep Band and Superior Wind Symphony, Matt Bettwy (mechanical engineering) and Laura Bufanda (theatre and entertainment technology), both who will be graduating with their bachelor’s degrees in December. They are the featured guests on Husky Bites, Tech’s free, interactive webinar series. Learn something new in just 30 minutes or so, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.
Read more about Mike, Laura, Matt and Husky Bites on the College of Engineering blog.
Turning a Love of Video Game Music into an Ensemble
What happens when you have a love for jazz/funk/fusion and video game music? Naturally you form an ensemble. Ryan Briggs and Sean Hanson formed theirs in the fall of 2019; the Video Game Music (VGM) Ensemble. The ensemble is now a student-run group of thirty musicians who like to arrange, rehearse, and perform songs from various video game franchises.
Video Game Music Creates an Emotion and Heightens Interest in the Genre
Video game music was always front and center. It spoke to them. “It’s similar to the interest with film music, when you hear the initial Star Wars theme music with the title screen, it elicits a very strong feeling of excitement, adventure, and grandiose. It’s the same thing with video game music, the difference is that each piece from a video game isn’t the theme of a story that you’re watching unfold, it’s the theme of your story as the player. It’s a very impactful and personal medium,” says Ryan. “I love the way music can manipulate emotions and make us feel…. It’s just really fascinating to me.”
Sean relates. “Soundtracks are probably the feature of games that enhance it the most for me – since it can really amp up an action or bring the emotion for a sad scene – almost cinematic in a way. And there’s such a huge diversity of music featured in games today as well – a forest might have a somber composition with flutes, piano, and violin – a beach/ocean setting might have groovy Latin percussion and ukulele/classical guitar – a snowy/ice setting might have twinkly glockenspiel and triangle – and a fiery/volcanic setting might have driving drum patterns, heavy electric guitars, and powerful low brass. While these cliches are common in video game compositions – they nonetheless are extremely effective in establishing the setting of a game – and that’s just from an orchestral point of view.”
Online Influencers Show What’s Possible
Online influencers helped to grow Sean’s interest. He started to get involved with the YouTube VGM community. A YouTuber named Carlos “insaneintherainmusic” Eiene played jazz arrangements of popular video game songs (notably Nintendo games). “He basically did everything I’ve always wanted to do – arrange, play, and mix his own arrangements on YouTube, organize an ensemble to playing and recording VGM at his college, although he graduated from Berklee – which is obviously a lot different than MTU, and perform at concert venues and convention centers,” Sean says. Carlos is one of the figureheads of the VGM scene.
The Pixel Mixers community is another key influencer. Sean describes it as “a tight-knit group of musicians of all instruments, genres, and countries of origin dedicated to making collaborative albums dedicated video games/franchises. Everyone here is super supportive of one another, and internet collaborations are very common.” Sean has used Pixel Mixers to collaborate on piano and percussion with dozens of people around the world in a fun and safe environment.
An Ensemble is Born at Michigan Tech
Thanks to Ryan and Sean, video game music took root here. Now there’s thirty active members. There’s another seventy interested people on Discord. To Ryan, “It’s a great intersection of interests, so when I found someone else (Sean) with the same interests, it was only natural to want to make fun music with like-minded people.”
Adam Meckler, Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Michigan Technological University says “The formation of the VGM Jazz Ensemble is a great example of how creative, resourceful, and motivated our students are here at Tech. All of the credit for VGM’s success and growth goes to Ryan and Sean, who organize all of the rehearsals, arrange all of the music, and rehearse the band in preparation for performances. I am just glad that I have a platform to give them performance opportunities so they can show off all their hard work. Bravo Ryan, Sean, and band!”
So how did it begin? According to Ryan and Sean the VGM Ensemble happened spontaneously. After a Research & Development (R&D) Jazz Band rehearsal, Sean was playing “Space Junk Galaxy” on piano from Super Mario Galaxy. Ryan Briggs (the R&D bass player) took notice of this, and came over to talk about it. The conversation turned to their favorite game soundtracks (Ryan’s primarily The Legend of Zelda and Sean’s primarily Pokemon). Next they were talking about forming a small group. They sought the advice of Adam Meckler.
Sean continues “We decided to choose Thursday nights as our main rehearsal day since the band room was usually open then and also didn’t interfere with any other of the ensembles at MTU. We also asked Zane Smalley to play drums for us – and we’ve since learned that drummers are the ones who control the rehearsal schedule. A few more people joined in (trumpet, trombone, alto sax, and tenor sax), and we mostly just played a few video game songs casually. VGLeadSheets is an extremely helpful database full of fan-arranged lead sheets of various VGM pieces, so we mostly played these for the first few months. At this time, we didn’t really have any end-goals or performances in mind – I was just happy to have a chance to play some of my favorite songs from games with other people. Unfortunately, in March 2020 we all know what happened, and then COVID made us go on indefinite hiatus.”
By Spring 2021 COVID restrictions eased. The VGM Ensemble started using the band room. Advertising on the MTU student Discord, subreddit, and word of mouth helped with recruitment. Ryan and Sean began to create their own arrangements which the ensemble rehearsed. The ensemble got its big break in March 2021. Adam Meckler offered to let them perform between bands at the Don Keranen Memorial Jazz Concert in March 2021 (performance timestamps are at 28:46 and 1:10:53). The band also opened the 2022 festival in March 2022. And Sean recorded a session for an album in April 2021 which he plans to release soon.
By Fall of 2021 membership in the band essentially doubled thanks to interest from freshmen. Ryan and Sean decided to organize their own concert and worked with George Hommowun (Rozsa Production Manager) to get it scheduled. In November 2021 they had their first concert and filled their allotment of seats (don’t forget, capacity restrictions were still in place).
“Hands down, our November concert “Playing With Power!” was my favorite moment of the ensemble.” Sean adds, “Doing something like this has been a dream of mine since my senior year of high school, and seeing it become a real thing actually made me tear up a bit. Seeing a full house audience also surprised me, considering we only had our concert information finalized and advertising ready less than a week before the performance – on top of it being right before Thanksgiving break when people were heading home.” Sean graduated soon after. He continues to write arrangements for the ensemble. Ryan has taken on the primary leadership role.
Video Game Music Ensemble Helps Sean and Ryan Grow
Leading the VGM Ensemble is not without its challenges. For Ryan, it has been learning how to play music while leading at the same time. Being aware of what others are playing while you are trying to play your notes can be a multi-tasking nightmare. And doing it while not having a background in music education is an added challenge. As Ryan relates, “I have no background in running and teaching an ensemble. I always took this aspect of it for granted. Band directors made it seem easy, partly due to their experience. They always had a plan.”
Sean supplements, “I’ve learned that there’s a LOT more that goes into organizing an ensemble than just the stuff we see on the surface. Even something as simple as organizing rehearsal schedules can be a lot of work – since we had to account for everyone’s personal schedules, the times the band room is actually available, and even times when parking is enforced or no. I also mentioned earlier that the drummer is truly the person who decides the rehearsal time – since if they can’t make it… you’re not having an ensemble.”
He also learned how to be flexible and to work with the strengths of the team to create success for all. “Since we’re not a music school, we have to account for the different skill levels of musicians here. Since we wanted our ensemble to be available to everyone regardless of proficiency and instrument, writing arrangements that everyone can play while still having fun can sometimes be difficult – I found that out the hard way last year when I arranged “Guile’s Theme” from Street Fighter II in its original key (concert C# minor)… yeah, safe to say some of the wind players were not happy with me. But at the same time, this opens up creative possibilities for arrangements. One of the best examples I can use is our arrangement of “Big Blue” from F-Zero. The original track is very obviously written and played for a computer/electronic instrument with triplet runs at 210 beats per minute. Since these are clearly not playable for most humans, we decided to slow things down into a funk arrangement instead – which everyone enjoyed and appreciated,” Sean says.
Why Does Music Thrive at Michigan Tech?
Michigan Tech has a supportive environment for students passionate about music. As Ryan observes, “Tech has a concentrated community of passionate people who are drawn to each other and want to help each other, build each other up. There is no music major here which helps to reduce competition. We’re all in it together and building each other up. It’s a great environment for getting feedback too.” And music runs much deeper for students like Ryan. He invokes a line he often heard from his mother, “While I am in Engineering I will be able to feed my family. But music will feed my soul.” Ryan hopes to continue to cultivate his passion for music.
With nine different bands and ensembles, two choirs, a symphony orchestra, practice facilities, a sound lab and a recording studio, the McArdle Theatre, and the Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts, Michigan Tech has great facilities to let students exercise their creative muscles and hone their craft. Ryan has taken advantage of the variety of opportunities in music at Michigan Tech. As mentioned earlier, he plays in the R&D Jazz Band. He also plays in the Campus Concert Band and serves as one of the trumpet section leaders for Huskies Pep Band. “Pep Band is so much fun! There is no band like it,” he beams. “Pep Band was my first group of friends on campus. Everyone is looking for a group to belong to when they step foot on campus. Some of my best friends are from pep band.”
Sean points out other opportunities for music such as informal jam groups that pop-up around campus. “There’s also a surprisingly active local music scene for those who would rather play independent of the school – and several venues such as the Orpheum in Hancock and Bonfire in Houghton. And then if you’re an electronic musician/producer, there’s a student Discord server full of electronic musicians to discuss ideas and share works. There’s definitely more than you would expect from a small town like Houghton.”
Music and Sound As Part of Their Future
What does the future hold for Ryan and Sean? Ryan is currently president of the Theme Park Engineering Group at Tech and dreams of a career in theme park entertainment. He’s more succinct about his five year goal. “I want to be working on one of the coasts. I want to be a Disney Imagineer.” He wants “to work on something that makes someone smile.” Combining his engineering skill with his passion for music is a great recipe for creating a satisfying theme park experience.
Sean graduated and has started his career at an architecture firm in St. Paul, MN. He designs systems (e.g. HVAC and plumbing) for government contracted buildings (schools, hospitals, police stations, etc.). At Tech he discovered he enjoyed working with acoustics and sound. “I took Acoustics and Noise Control as a technical elective in Spring 2021. It was hands down the coolest class I’ve ever taken in my college career – since I got to geek out STEM-wise and audio-wise at the same time. I’m especially interested in room acoustics and studio design. So when I interviewed for the company I’m currently at, I brought up my music background and how a healthy noise environment can enhance a building space (they liked it enough to give me a job, so there’s that). I don’t work with acoustic-related information very often, but I do occasionally use simulation programs to see how much noise an HVAC duct is making in a room – and if there’s any changes that need to be made accordingly.”
Sean continues to be involved in music as a side career. His personal VGM covers are available on commercial streaming services and stores (Spotify, Apple Music, etc.), which generates a small amount of revenue every month. “While it isn’t nearly enough to sustain me as a career, it’s nice to receive an extra $20 every now and then.”
Making Music Part of the Michigan Tech Experience
As Ryan and Sean’s story shows, music is a fun and rewarding part of the Michigan Tech experience. This is the place where you can find people who share your passion in music. Where you can partake in a variety of music experiences and genres. Hone a craft that allows you to exercise your creative muscle.
Ryan shares, “People that are here are here because they want to be here. They love what they are doing. You can come here and do your own thing. You have a special musical interest, you can start your own ensemble. We have a pirate choir. If you have an interest and it’s not already here, you can start it.”
Anyone want to start up a Folktronica, Pirate Metal or Math Rock Band?