UMW graduate Becky Brown ’15 has been baring her soul onstage for what seems like forever – through the strings of her harp. A recent piece she created put that honesty to the test.
“A lot of the subject matter turned out to be very personal,” Brown blogged about her electroacoustic composition, Hold Still. “Opening up to a room full of strangers is daunting.”
She claimed her voice, though, at last month’s Research and Creativity Day, revealing her senior project – and much of her persona – to a roomful of students and faculty. An intimate tangle of technology, poetry, music, and more, it taps into Brown’s deep pool of talents … and also her soul. It’s the ultimate self-portrait, painted with No. 2 pencils and modern effects, a mixed-media masterpiece of her innermost thoughts.
A camera captures the picture of Brown’s drawing, while her original poetry and spoken-word compilation play simultaneously on two different tracks. Her words swirl around her as she works, leading listeners on an emotional maze through the life of a girl coming to terms with the insecurities of middle and high school.
It’s personal and raw, but still so electric. Alligator clips link copper fittings to a programmable controller called an Arduino, and then to Brown’s laptop, where a patch processes the data. While she’s sketching, she’s shaping the audio and video by sliding the copper along thick pencil lines. Paper becomes a controller, graphite a sensor.
It’s an intricate setup with a powerful punch.
“It encapsulates an insecurity that women deal with, and she does it so well,” said Assistant Professor of Music Mark L. Snyder ’97. “When I listened to it, I had chills. It really is superb.”
A music and computer science major, Brown was seven when she picked up a harp at the Washington Conservatory of Music. Not that she always enjoyed it. It’s lonely onstage for a harpist, and there’s the investment.
“It’s like buying a car,” she said of her 60-pound concert grand harp. “There’s a loan involved.”
She stuck with it, though, and by high school, spent summers with the American Youth Harp Ensemble. After graduation, she interned there, teaching students and playing with the group in London and Austria, and at Carnegie Hall.
But Mary Washington – and a chance to study under harpist Jeanne Chalifoux – was calling. When Chalifoux retired, Brown, who’d been energized by Snyder and his dynamic approach, turned her college career in a different direction.
“That’s when the music major really cemented for me,” said Brown, who spent hours in Pollard Hall learning the art of recording. “I don’t think I stopped laughing in class for three weeks.”
Now technical director of Snyder’s Electroacoustic Barn Dance, an annual event that draws big names in music, Brown leaves Mary Washington this weekend with the Anne and Sidney Hamer and Mu Phi Epsilon Sterling Achievement music awards.
She’ll take with her much more, of course, including the freedom that comes with finding your voice.
“That’s what writing [Hold Still] has meant to me,” Brown blogged. “You have a voice. It is different from mine, and I want to hear what you have to say. Please don’t hide.”