Every semester, students sign up to play with Bowdoin’s Afro-Latin Music Ensemble, a half-credit musical group that studies and performs traditional songs from Latin America. And every semester, Director Michael Birenbaum Quintero, an assistant professor of music at Bowdoin, teaches the changing cast of students a number of complex rhythms on different drums and other instruments.
“It is a course where students, including or non-musicians — there are no auditions — learn how to play this different kind of music. Even if they’re musicians, they’re unfamiliar with this music, which is traditional music from Afro-Latin American populations,” including Afro-Cuban, Afro-Peruvian and Afro-Colombian religious and secular music, Quintero said.
Ideally the students would be able to practice in their free time in their dorm rooms, as violinists and flutists do, toting their instruments from classroom to home. But Quintero’s instruments are big, heavy and valuable, so students are constrained to practicing during class.
Also, because of the rhythmic complexity of traditional Afro-Latin music, it’s important that every member of the ensemble know everyone’s part down cold. “There’s a lot of interaction between the instruments — a lot of dialogue and interaction among the musicians,” Quintero said. As each musician plays his or her individual part, they must stay attuned to the shifting rhythms around them. “I wanted to figure out a way for all the students to learn all the parts. I wanted to give students a resource…to not only learn how to play their own part but also to hear the different interactions between the instruments.”
Turning to the digital world to achieve this goal, Quintero last spring asked one of his students, Walker Kennedy ’15, whether he could create a user-friendly program that could help teach his students the multilayered rhythms to members of the ensemble.
Kennedy, a computer science and music double major, was happy to take on the challenge. “I hadn’t done much audio programming,” he said, “but I had a few ideas I thought I could start with.”
With music or computers, you can create something that serves a purpose, whether aesthetically, practically or emotionally.”
Kennedy’s ideas had merit, and the rising junior received a Gibbons grant from Bowdoin’s IT department this summer to develop a digitized practice program for Quintero. John A. Gibbons, Jr. ’64 established the Gibbons Summer Research Program to enable students to work with members of the faculty on projects that use technology to explore interdisciplinary areas and to develop fresh approaches to the study of complex problems.
Holed up in one of the basement rooms of Gibson Hall, Kennedy has logged many hours turning traditional songs into coded language. He is using Max software, a favorite tool for musicians and performing artists, one so flexible that users can create entirely new musical instruments with it. Early this summer Kennedy learned how to use Max with help from Frank Mauceri, a lecturer in Bowdoin’s music department and director of the jazz ensemble.
To create an Afro-Latin rhythm in Max, Kennedy has had to account for every possible hit on every one of Quintero’s many drums. For the simplest drums in the Batá ensemble (within the Afro-Latin Ensemble, Quintero breaks the students down into smaller ensembles), there are just three drums, with four hits per drum: the open hit, the one-handed hit, the slap and the double hit. Other drums have seven, or possibly more, sounds. So far, Kennedy has programmed eight songs for eight drums, using recordings he and Quintero made. Kennedy plans to keep adding songs — there are as many as 30 that Quintero now teaches — over the next two years. And as Quintero researches and learns more songs from Latin America, he will continue adding music to the training program.
Students can download the free program into their computers and play along with the songs on their keyboard. The program is adaptable: users can turn the other instruments in the ensemble on and off to practice playing with just one or more drums. They can focus on variations within each song, zeroing in on what may be a more challenging section. They are able to slow songs down. Eventually, Kennedy would like to add a video component, so students can watch, say, Quintero playing the marimba as they play along on their keyboard.
“They’re learning the rhythm and getting a good grasp for how to play their part in the context of other player’s parts,” Kennedy explained.
Kennedy said this summer he’s not only enjoyed learning Max, but has also appreciated the chance to delve into the Afro-Latin ensemble’s songs, breaking them down and analyzing how the parts fit together. Kennedy, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., plays guitar and piano, and is the music director of Bowdoin’s radio station, WBOR. “I find a lot of comparisons between computers and music,” he noted. “Both have strict languages and rules that you have to follow to make them work, but within all those constraints, you can create anything.”