As I walked towards Stoeckel Hall 106 on the first day of class, I could already hear warbling synths and a massive wobble bass thundering through the room. As I squeezed inside, I could see that
The music wasn’t a prerecorded beat, but was coming from our professor—an unassuming-looking woman with black- framed eyeglasses, who looked to be older than my moth- er’s generation—who made beats from scratch while one of our TAs improvised a bass groove on a MIDI keyboard next to her. Students soon filled the classroom and spilled into the hallway outside. The stuffy room, filled with white- boards and the anxieties of students on their first day of shopping period, was perhaps the last place I’d expect to be blasting dubstep on a Wednesday afternoon.
The course is MUSI 295: Electronic Dance Music. Geared towards music and non-music majors alike, it aims to give students an understanding of EDM synthe- sis and production, as well as an overview of cultural de- velopments in the genre and its innumerable subgenres. The class is chiefly performance-based, and is designed to leave students with the ability to produce and perform electronic music. The once-a-week lecture is coupled with hands-on lab sections, where students learn how to use a range of music software—namely Ableton Live 9—and play with a set of hardware that corresponds with the pro- grams (including synthesizers and drum pads). Instead of traditional exams, students perform live remixes and origi- nal tunes with the gear they’ve been learning to use.
On Labor Day morning, Professor Kathryn Alexander— who told me to call her “Dr. A,” not “Professor”—met me in the Stoeckel lobby to talk about the course. Carrying her books and hoisting a tidy backpack onto her shoulders, she told me about her decades-long passion for electronic dance music that began when she was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Dr. A joined Yale’s music de- partment in 1996, where she currently serves as Senior Faculty Composer. Between stories about experimental laptop ensembles and recommendations for which monitor speakers I should buy, Dr. A told me that she was also largely responsible for the addition of electronic music technology courses to the department in 1998. She cre- ated not only MUSI 295, but also MUSI 325 and 395, which are currently offered as higher-level, more theory- based versions of 295. As we talked, Dr. A brought me upstairs, to the YalMusT music labs in Stoeckel, which she also helped to open in 1998. We walked through the rows of shiny new MIDI keyboards and other studio gear, and Dr. A acknowledged with a shrug that, while the idea for in- troducing electronic music classes to Yale may have been there before she arrived, “Well, I’m the one who … did it.”
Dr. A said the courses and the YalMusT labs are meant to attract students from all disciplines and al- low them to apply music technology to their own fields of study. “I’ve had American Studies students take MUSI 295 who are working on a project about cultural movements,” she told me, explaining the breadth of students who enroll. “Hopefully this course helps them understand what other relevant practitioners are doing.” But, she add- ed, “If people just want to get into EDM, they can [take the class], too.”
My interest in music started on day one. My dad is a collector of classical vinyl records, so I grew up in a house where Brahms and Mahler streamed through our living room. I took up piano at age six; now, I play classical piano in YSO, run a radio show in WYBC, and play keys in a rock band. Though I’m not a music major, I signed up for the class in the hopes that by the end of the semester, I’ll be able to create my own variety of EDM music.
Caitlin Pequignot ES ’14, was an MCDB major and one of Dr. A’s past students. She now produces electro-pop music in Florida under the stage name Anchorage. At Yale, Pequignot took MUSI 325, the more theory-based version of 295, where she polished her knowledge of production tools like Logic Pro, which she says are now indispensible in her work today. “Learning how to use these tools is important for any musician, no matter what genre she works in,” she told me. “The course helped me utilize the pro- grams on a deeper level.”
Over lunch in Morse, I talked with Nolan Maloney ES ’16, an MB&B major who is taking the class this semester. Maloney grew up playing classical music on the violin, but said that lab research takes up most of his time here at Yale. He said that he listens almost exclusively to electronic music and, when he heard about MUSI 295, he jumped at the opportunity. “This is probably the first class I’ve taken where I’m actually interested in the subject ma- terial,” Maloney told me with a grin.
Leeza Ali MC ’15, a psychology and music double ma- jor, is a pianist and composer. She told me over our bowls of oatmeal that she has limited knowledge of the EDM genre, but as the founder of the Yale Society of Singer Songwriters, her future will certainly require knowledge of music production. “I want to get out of my comfort zone, because I’m used to writing neo-classical music,” Ali said. “Honestly, [this class] is also just really cool.”
As many of us intend to use the class as a launch pad for producing original electronic music beyond the end of the semester, Ali noted that we will be joining the other students on campus who already work in EDM: “There’s a core group of people who make EDM here that’s small, but extremely talented.” Pequignot agreed, mention- ing, among others, the electronic/a cappella fusion group a.squared, which one of Dr A’s students helped to found.
“Since Yale has a startup culture for everything else, not to mention great musicians who are creative and inter- ested in different genres, it doesn’t make much sense why we can’t have a burgeoning nontraditional music scene,” Pequignot said. “It just needs to be more accessible.” Programs like MUSI 295—that leave students lined up outside the classroom—seem to be leading Yale in that direction.
Illustration by Grant Laster