Dr. Tom Baker – Shifting Sands/Solid Footing

Dr. Tom Baker

Professor, Cornish College of the Arts

Shifting Sands / Solid Footing

Project-Based Learning for Undergraduate Musicians in Experimental Electronic Music

This proposal is an exploration of curriculum and pedagogy centered on music technology at Cornish College of the Arts, both in its legacy and its future. The author will present new curricular approaches to embedding technology at every corner of the curriculum, allowing the “music technology” curriculum to focus on experimentation, making, and creativity.


“As soon as you externalize an idea you see facets of it that weren’t clear when it was just floating

around in your head.” – Brian Eno

It is true that the ground is always changing and the sands are always shifting beneath our feet in regards to technology and the human experience. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is true in all human endeavors, including art and music. And while this changing ground and shifting sand often allows glimpses of new horizons and perhaps avenues for equitable and revolutionary change, it can also create confusion, paranoia, and stagnation. As a professor of music working with sound technology in regards to pedagogy and curriculum, I am exploring ways for my students to find what I believe is beneath the shifting sands – solid footing centered on experimentation, compositional technique, aesthetic understanding, and playing/making. If we can externalize our musical ideas we can see it more clearly, and technology, if used at the service of generative work, can assist us in a revolutionary transformation.

I have a unique privilege to teach at a college that has an amazing legacy around progressive education and experimental art practice. I enter a building each day where John Cage first prepared a piano, first collaborated with Merce Cunningham, and created “Imaginary Landscape No. 1” in 1937, certainly a moment of sand shifting. He wrote: “Since this work is new and experimental I may take the liberty of describing it as the exploration of sound and rhythm. It will, I believe, be thought of in the future as a transition from the restricted music of the past to the unlimited electronic music of the future.”

It is in the spirit of this legacy of experimentation and making that we are endeavoring to build a new curriculum that embeds technology in every facet, and builds in time and space for creating within the realm of music technology. This paper will explore the ideas for this new curriculum, and focus on project-based learning that balance theory and practice, takes time for reflection, and focuses on the generative impulse in our students.


Tom Baker has been active as a composer, performer, and producer in the Seattle new-music scene since arriving in 1994. He is the artistic director of the Seattle Composers’ Salon, co-founder of the Seattle EXperimental Opera (SEXO), an advisory board member of the Seattle Modern Orchestra, founder of the new-music recording label Present Sounds Recordings, and is currently professor of composition at Cornish College of the Arts. Tom teaches theory, composition, and electronic music at Cornish, specializing in digital media collaboration and electronic improvisation.

Tom is also active as a performer and improviser, specializing in fretless guitar and live-electronics. He has recorded seven albums, including two solo records. Tom has worked with many innovative musicians, including Stuart Dempster, William O. Smith, Christian Asplund, Chinary Ung, Ellen Fullman, Matana Roberts, and Henry Threadgill.

Tom has received awards and grants for his work from many organizations, including Meet The Composer, the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, 4Culture, and Artist Trust. He has been an artist-in-residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida and the Montalvo Arts Center in California. His works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada and in Europe.