“Coding as Composing:” Changing the Way Music Works

The SUNY New Paltz Experimental Music Ensemble is challenging what it means to create music, and the tools we use to do so. 

In a recent program entitled “Coding as Composing,” the Ensemble teamed up with fourth-graders at the Fieldston Ethical Cultural School in the Bronx to create music using small robotic instruments. 

The Experimental Music Ensemble, a group of six, is headed by fourth-year student Steven Roberts, and advised by Dr. Alex Peh and Dr. Christiana Fortune-Reader. The group chose the Fieldston school because Dr. Peh’s mother, Len Hang, teaches robotics there. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to get kids involved in some do-it-yourself, unconventional music-making and gain all of the skills that come with it. 

“Some of the goals of the Experimental Music Ensemble as well as the SUNY New Paltz Music Department are to expand students’ horizons and to deconstruct traditional concepts of music,” Dr. Fortune-Reader said. “This is what brought us to robots. Coding and composing are really very similar, especially because we used simple programs like EB3 and Lego Mindstorms.”

“Coding as Composing” exemplifies the ideas of an interdisciplinary liberal arts education. Students in this program learned multiple new skills, as well as how these skills relate to one another. Also, the sweetest part is that they get to play with robots.

“There’s this whole big debate about “STEM vs. STEAM,” and some people believe that the A stands for agriculture. We believe that the “A” stands for the Arts, and combining music with robotics is a great way to get kids interested in both,” Fortune-Reader said. “It really allows us to bridge the gap between creating and playing for these kids. And we get to learn from them as well.”

The students teamed up to create many robotic instruments; some clap, whirr, snap, crinkle, or otherwise make noise in an organized way. In this instance, advisors Fortune-Reader and Peh, as well as the students in the Experimental Music Ensemble, got to learn from the creativity of these children in a play-based learning environment, which numerous studies have shown is beneficial to them. 

“This program is really representative of the best things about music bringing people together from different walks of life, to learn from each other, to collaborate and build community,” Fortune-Reader said. “This program gives students the experience and flexibility to try something new!”

Following this collaboration, the Experimental Music Ensemble presented their work, entitled “Opus Fun,” in December at the Abron Arts Center in Lower Manhattan. The audience consisted not only much of New York’s art crowd, but also of the students and families from the Fieldston school. This event served to submerge students in the arts in a rare and special way. 

The Experimental Music Ensemble is interested in expanding their programs for more community outreach, including having a Saturday Arts Lab through the Fine Arts Department during the school year. 

On May 5 at 1 p.m., the Ensemble will present “Opus Fun” at the Cronin Gallery within Water Street Market in New Paltz. Anyone seeking more information can drop by the Music Department in College Hall.