Chris Burns: Making music from anarchy

Ben Levine

Electronic music has been steadily growing in popularity since the innovators of Kraftwerk released the classic album Autobahn. Students at Lawrence got the chance to develop their own electronic music skills by attending a workshop hosted by Chris Burns this past Saturday.
At this workshop, Burns showed students how to use his newly developed Network Resources for Collaborative Improvisation (NRCI) software in order to easily compose complex electronic music. The workshop was located in the basement of the Music-Drama building. All of the students came with their laptops ready and the NRCI software installed.
Chris Burns developed the NRCI software along with collaborator Greg Surges. Chris is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee campus and is both a chamber and electronic music composer. In addition to teaching, Chris also facilitates the Milwaukee Laptop Orchestra (MiLO), an electronic music performance group. He has been active in MiLO for over one year.
Before this workshop, Chris had only taught NRCI to other members of MiLO. The students attending the workshop were the first people to learn the software outside of Chris’ composition group. Needless to say, Chris seemed excited to teach his software as well as hear feedback from the students.
The NRCI software itself is relatively simple suite style program that is designed for both music creation and performance. How the software works is by utilizing tools developed in a software package called “Pd” in order to compose and arrange music. The software also makes use of networking, allowing group performers to communicate with each other’s music while onstage and “live coding,” which allows people to altar their music composition in the middle of performance. The software is free and open source, meaning anyone has permission alter and improve upon the coding.
As Chris explained the software and showed students how to create basic tones, the “beeps” and “boops” of electronic music filled the room. It sounded as if two robots were having a highly heated discourse. All different types of tones and pitches came from the computers. The students were making their own electronic music. Chris would later go on to explain the more advanced features of NRCI, such as how to make two computers communicate using the software.
The students all seemed to find the workshop engrossing. Throughout the workshop, students were asking many questions and expressing delight at the breadth of features available to them with the NRCI software. Collin McCanna, a music student at Lawrence, described the experience as both fun and worthwhile. He says that NRCI is now “another weapon in [his] arsenal of electronic music software.”
These positive responses show the growing interest in electronic music on campus. There is already a small student group recently formed called the EMC which is designed around listening to and creating electronic music. With such sophisticated technology like NRCI becoming readily available, the complexity and variety of electronic music is sure to only grow broader both on campus and around the world.