Composing in the Digital Age

By Kelly Johnson

In today’s rapidly evolving technological world, new forms of expression and individuality are becoming almost limitless.

Through computer music and the broader scope of new media technology, some ambitious students at NIU are harnessing these trends and shifts in order to create something unique.

“What we emphasize here at NIU is an experimental approach to making and experiencing music,” said James Phelps, director of NIU Computer Music Studios. “I try to establish the opportunity for students to learn about what has been done and what is currently being done in music, including potentials that haven’t yet been realized.”

Studying computer music and new media technology at NIU as an undergraduate or graduate student focuses on production and composition aspects. Various names have been given to this art, including “electro-acoustic” or “electronic” music.

“The term ‘computer music’ is a bit of a hangover historically and doesn’t really differentiate well from many approaches to making music in present-day musical society,” Phelps said. “Very often pieces involving computer music performance also involve other disciplines such as video, photography, dance, theater – the list goes on.”

The courses offered within the emphasis focus on the development of the student as a composer of computer music.

“We are introduced to several technical concepts, nothing too complicated, just something to give us an idea as to what is really happening behind the scenes,” graduate student Nick Sherman said. “The primary content of the courses is about composition, the thought processes behind a piece and the implementation used to realize the finalized product.”

To realize this finalized product, those studying computer music have formed the Annex Group. Phelps heads up the Annex Group, which meets once a week to discuss matters related to computer music and occasionally hosts guest composers to do workshops and concerts. The group hosts one recital every semester in which all 14 Annex Group members are invited to perform their compositions.

“What I really like about this program is that Dr. Phelps allows us to choose our on directions,” music major Ted Apollo said. “We are constantly being challenged by Dr. Phelps or our classmates to push ourselves to our best.”

Mike Taylor, who last fall finished his master’s degree in computer music and new media technology under Phelps, started a like-minded group here on campus called the InterMedia Manifold. The IMM is also composed of NIU computer music students and puts on the multimedia/computer music shows.

“IMM is planning on hosting a Hip Chips concert here in DeKalb,” Taylor said. “The Hip Chips is a decentralized international laptop music festival happening between Feb. 10 and June 30 in various cities around the world.”

According to the Hip Chips festival Web site,, “if you perform with a laptop computer, we invite you to participate in Hip Chips.”

This liberal mind-set to new technology permeates through the philosophies taught in the NIU Computer Music Studios, and individual voices are developing a platform to perform their creativity.