Featured Fellow: Kelli Smith-Biwer

Arts Everywhere is so excited to introduce fourth-year doctoral student Kelli Smith-Biwer as the inaugural recipient of our Graduate Fellowship in Music Technology. This new fellowship is designed to give graduate students in musicology the opportunity to develop creative, scholarly, and pedagogical skills in the area of music technology while serving the campus and broader communities. Drawing on the resources of the Beat Lab (Hill Hall 109) and the Video Presentation Studio (Hill Hall 210), the fellow orients, supports, and collaborates with students, faculty, and staff as well as community artists as they engage with the studios. 

Before coming to Carolina, Kelli worked for five years in IT and software testing, and has experience with multimedia production, electronic music composition and performance, video editing, and documentary filmmaking; she is currently writing a dissertation on the gendered buying and listening practices in high fidelity audio culture in the United States. During her fellowship, Kelli will be working in both the Beat Lab and Video Presentation Studio, organizing workshops, and offering technical assistance to students, staff, and faculty.

Get to know Kelli by reading through our interview with her below!

Questions for Kelli

Tell us about your journey and experience in music technology and production.

I actually came to music technology late in my musical education. It wasn’t until I started my graduate work at Michigan State University in 2016 that I fully realized I could bring my interests in music and tech together. At MSU I started a laptop performance group with some amazing graduate student composers who specialized in electronic music. I’ve only ever taken one music technology class; everything else I know was gleaned from trial-by-fire with that ensemble. It was really the best way to learn because a large part of working with music technology is building the knowledge and confidence to creatively solve problems.

I’ll also add that, when I started making electronic music, it was the first time I ever felt that I was expressing myself through music. I had listened with envy and sadness to so many fellow musicians who truly could share their voices with traditional instruments or composition. These modalities just never felt right for me. It wasn’t until I built my first little synthesizer in Max MSP (a multi-media software) that I really felt that I, too, could participate in these expressive acts.

Tell us about your transition from working in IT and software development to this fellowship.

During undergrad, I studied classical music for my degree and worked at the university IT Help Desk to pay the bills. I graduated with my bachelor’s in music education at the height of the recession and, concerned about job security, opted to leverage my tech skills to get an IT job instead of staying in music. The company I worked at specialized in the physical layer of network engineering and, while I liked the software side of what we did, the hands-on lab work was easily my favorite part of the job. This worked for a while, but after about five years I realized that, while I could see a future in network engineering, that I would never be happy outside of a musical career. I could never shake my childhood dreams of being a music professor (I know, I know, what sort of kid dreams that?!?!) 

As a young woman and musicologist who had worked in the male-dominated tech field, I found that I was in a unique position to leverage my experiences to make change. I resolved to maintain an activist stance in everything I do. My research centers on the history of gender and home audio and, in my spare time, I have run workshops, mentored students, started performance ensembles, and found every opportunity I could to reach out to women, non-binary, queer, and underrepresented artists interested in music technology. The Arts Everywhere equity and community-oriented mission aligns neatly with my goals and provides support I could only have dreamed of when I first embarked on this life-long project. 

What drew you into studying gendered buying and listening practices in audio culture?

I was in college right at the beginning of the vinyl revival and was swept up in the millennial-hipster-flavored obsession with analog. Those who remember the early days of this resurgence also remember that the market was primarily driven by young, educated, white men. Many great scholars are looking into the history of women in music technology, but I was less interested in why women were not next to me flipping through crates and more interested in why men were. I wanted to know when music technology became masculine. This historic approach led me to the 1950s in the U.S., which is when high fidelity (hi-fi) gear really gained commercial traction and started being marketed to white, middle-class men. My dissertation looks at why men bought hi-fi gear, the complexities of masculine identities in the midcentury, and how that early advertising has shaped how we gender home audio in the 21st century. 

As the first person in this position…

What do you hope to accomplish this year?

My goal for the year is to make sure the UNC community knows what music technology resources are available to them through the music department and to empower students, faculty, and staff to find creative ways to use them. Right now, I’m working on acquiring equipment for and reorganizing our Beat Lab to make live collaboration easier for those with limited experience with DJ equipment. Between this refitting project and hosting workshops with guest artists, I hope that more folks will find ways to create and collaborate using the tools the university has to offer. 

In a different vein, I’d also love to start a laptop ensemble or music technology club comprised of undergraduates who are interested in experimental electronic music so that I can facilitate rehearsals, commissions, and performance opportunities for them.

What are you looking forward to most?

Generally speaking, I cannot wait to meet and work closely with the amazing local artists that are coming in to do workshops this semester. They’re all amazing, but one I’m particularly excited about is Suzi Analog, a DJ and electronic music artist. I ADORE her. I am fangirl-level excited to meet her and learn more about the way she makes music. 

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

I hope to foster a diverse community of students and community members who continue to meet, collaborate, and experiment after I leave the program. I also hope to establish a set of best practices for the next Arts Everywhere Music Technology Fellow, so that they can confidently start their work on their own goals in the fall of 2022.  

What advice do you have for students who are beginning their musical journey?

Generally: There’s no right way to make a musical career, so just work hard, be passionate, and trust your instincts.  Always celebrate difference: different musical tastes, different backgrounds, and different skills make music interesting and valuable.

Regarding music technology: Never be afraid to play. You’re (probably) not going to break it and you can always return to factory settings 😊 

Speed Round

Unpopular music opinion?

Vinyl does not inherently sound better than high-quality digital or tape. I rant about this at least once a week.

Favorite song at the moment.

“Knee Play 1” from Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach 

Last song you listened to.

“Here With You” by Dido – Please don’t judge me LOL. Like so many people, the stress of the pandemic has sent me back to the comfort music I liked as a kid. For me, that means I’m jamming to the sounds of 1999. 

If you could make a collab with any artist, who would you choose?

Suzanne Ciani: Not only is she a brilliant electronic musician, she always seems to have a warm and pleasantly scatter-brained vibe in interviews.

Who inspires you?

The students with whom I have the absolute privilege of mentoring, teaching, and collaborating. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the difficulties and cynicism of academia, and the unfettered creativity, optimism, curiosity, and grit that my undergraduate colleagues bring to the table simultaneously uplifts and grounds me.