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The Pandora Professor

What does Wynton Marsalis have in common with Miley Cyrus? How do you get from Claude Debussy to Kanye West in just six musical steps?

photo: Alex Ruthmann at work

These are the kinds of questions that intrigue Alex Ruthmann, the Steinhardt music education and technology professor who’s a bit like the hip band director you never had: On a given night you might find him at Carnegie Hall to hear the Vienna Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s 9th (he is a French horn player, after all)—but he’s just as likely to rock out to, say, Arc Iris, a new cabaret-pop band from Providence. When asked if he tunes into top-40 radio to help connect with youngsters, the former middle school music teacher looks puzzled. “Oh, often times students are listening way beyond top-40,” he says. “There might be an older brother who’s into some weird sub-genre that they get hooked on, and then that can be something they bring in and we talk about in class.”

Ruthmann aims to close what he calls “the gap between the music that the students are listening to and the music that the teacher feels comfortable teaching.” Rather than simply learning about existing songs, or even creating versions of them in a program like GarageBand, Ruthmann believes that students should be dissecting the actual tracks from music they love—whether it’s the Beatles or Beyonce.

To that end, he’s been working with artists to license the original, multi-track recordings of their hits for educational use. With Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” for example, it’s now possible to peel away the different layers to figure out just what makes the song work. “You can go in and hear Peter's voice solo,” Ruthmann says, “or hear how the percussion line doesn’t perfectly line up with the bass line—and how that imperfection is what makes the groove.”

As you might guess, Ruthmann is always listening: At home, there’s the Apple TV for streaming, and on the go, he’s ditched earbuds in favor of a nice pair of headphones or, even better, a Bluetooth speaker with batteries that last for fifteen hours. Like any good 21st-century music-technophile, he’s a devotee of Spotify and Pandora, which are powered by algorithms developed by researchers in his own department at NYU. But Ruthmann admits that, when it comes to discovering new music, a computer makes a poor substitute for that friend who lends you albums or drags you to concerts.

“I grew up in a town of 4,000 in rural Missouri, and we didn’t get MTV,” Ruthmann reflects. “The person who opened music up for me was a high school music teacher who made mixtapes and gave them out to students. He was from the city, and he introduced us to all kinds of stuff.” The old cassettes—filled with everything from the great symphonies to ’80s new wave—now reside in a drawer in Ruthmann’s office, where he’s begun the painstaking process of recreating them digitally.

While it might be true that there’s nothing quite like a good mixtape, NYU Stories asked Ruthmann for the next best thing: a (human-curated) playlist for every mood. Here are some of his top recommendations.

Soundtrack for chores around the house:
Fela Kuti (AfroBeat)
Or
Art Tatum (very fast, improvisatory jazz)

Like house from waaaaay back:
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Ruthmann once taught middle-schoolers to recreate it using software called Super Duper Music Looper. “Loops and repetition aren’t just in today’s music,” he says. “Those are not new strategies—Stravinsky was doing that with ostinatos and dance music, and we’ve had dance music since the dawn of time.”

The album that rocked his face:
Frank Zappa’s Roxy and Elsewhere

Good for ’80s trivia:
Peter Gabriel’s “Intruder.” It features the first instance of gated reverb which, first created when a sound engineer accidentally left a talk-back microphone on in the control room, would became one of the decade’s signature sounds (think of Phil Collins’ drums).

Bombastic brass:
“Jupiter” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets
Richard Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie

Guilty pleasure:
Anything by XTC
or
Sparks’ “Propaganda/At Home at Work At Play”

For more tips on deconstructing your favorite tunes, check out the next iteration of “Play With Your Music,” an online course on the basics of audio production that Ruthmann teaches with research assistant Ethan Hein. Anyone—even those with no musical training—can take the class, which is supported through a collaboration between Steinhardt, Peer 2 Peer University, and the MIT Media Lab. Students start by honing critical listening skills and then play around with interactive multi-track recordings from a major artist. And they’re grouped according to musical taste, Ruthmann explains, so that a Megadeth fan doesn’t end up having to listen to eight different Britney Spears remixes. 

 

—Eileen Reynolds

Photo: Anne Ruthmann

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