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Sound Vision

Foundation Studies Programs Head Shawn Greenlee 96 PR has earned a MacColl Johnson Fellowship to explore ancient Asian instruments in the context of new technology.

Shawn Greenlee 96 PR presented EMERALD TABLETS at last year’s New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) conference.

Assistant professor and electronic media artist Shawn Greenlee 96 PR is riding a welcomed wave of support. A full-time faculty member since 2010, he earned a promotion to programs head in Foundation Studies last summer and recently wowed visitors at the RISD Museum when he premiered a new piece inspired by an ancient Chinese lithophone in the museum’s collection. In February he learned that he’s one of three local composers to win a $25,000 MacColl Johnson Fellowship from the Rhode Island Foundation.

“My practice explores how to use new technologies to integrate images and sound in a performance context,” says Greenlee. “I was originally exposed to the ideas that set me on this path during my Foundation year at RISD. Professors like Gareth Jones, Victor Lara and [former faculty member] Lea Feinstein really encouraged us to experiment.”

A Printmaking major at RISD, Greenlee also played bass in a hugely popular noise band in the 1990s before shifting his focus to solo electronic music and then earning one of the first PhDs Brown University ever conferred in Computer Music and New Media. Having begun his computer music practice with sound synthesis, he recently moved into the realm of traditional Asian instruments – although in his hands, they’re used to interface with his own custom-designed software. “I’m looking at centuries-old instruments in the context of emerging technologies,” he explains.

Greenlee’s interest in traditional Korean instruments began in 2012 when he traveled to Seoul to collaborate with a trio of musicians considered to be masters of the kayagum (a zither-like instrument similar to the Japanese koto). Using software he coded himself, he composed unconventional works for the ensemble. “I was composing for an instrument I’d never played myself,” he says. “I had to translate the scores I’d generated algorithmically into notation the musicians could actually play.”

Thanks to the new MacColl Johnson support, Greenlee plans to return to Korea this summer to further his research. “My aim is to continue composing for traditional Korean instruments, including the 12-string kayagum and the stone chime known as pyeongyeong,” he says. “I will focus on creating works for soloists and ensembles in an experimental context and hope that the new pieces will eventually be performed in the US.”

For the third year running, Greenlee also plans to present at the 2015 conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME), which will be held in late spring at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. This time he’ll perform Substitutions, the semi-improvisational piece he premiered at the RISD Museum, played by striking a granite lithophone of his own design and digitally transforming the tones generated into abstract, otherworldly electronica.

At first blush, these sonic experiments may seem disconnected from the visual arts at the heart of RISD’s curriculum. But Greenlee challenges the notion that the major courses of study here are strictly visual. “What about architecture?” he asks, “or industrial design?” As a sound artist, he actually feels right at home in Foundation Studies and as programs head, thinks a lot about the curriculum and how the various units relate.

“One thing that is becoming more and more clear to me,” says Greenlee, “is that Foundation year is more about catalyzing than preparing students. There’s some passing on of established knowledge, but there’s also so much experimentation and analysis. It’s a great time for students to cross boundaries and explore what it means to be multidisciplinary.”

Greenlee is also pleased to report that the audio component of RISD’s curriculum is expanding and evolving. “There’s a lot of momentum building around this kind of work,” he notes. “Students are excited about integrating this knowledge into whatever major they choose. The majors are deep and disciplinary, but fields of study like sound are really good at bridging majors. And these cross-disciplinary conversations produce outcomes that you would never expect.”

Simone Solondz

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