Student Spotlight - Ryan McMaster

The Public Humanities Fellows program, coordinated by the Humanities Center, pairs doctoral students with local institutions for 6- or 12- week summer internships. Since the program’s inauguration in 2017, Fellows have worked with arts organizations, such as the Heinz History Center, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, City of Asylum, and Pittsburgh Filmmakers, as well as the environmental non-profit the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

As part of the summer 2018 cohort, Ryan McMaster, a PhD candidate in Music Theory and Composition, worked with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. How does music theory relate to the environment? Read his answers below.

1. Please tell us about your disciplinary background.
I am a Ph.D. Candidate in Music Theory and Composition, focusing on the concepts of accessibility and inclusion in music technology and the use of noise and distortion as both a compositional tool and means of societal agency.

2. What was your project or internship and how did it push the boundaries of your disciplinary training?
This summer, I spent 12 weeks working with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy as their first Artist-In-Residence, incorporating performance, composition, and education into their summer programming. I worked alongside their staff of Naturalist Educators to create musical and sonic experiences for campers between 3 and 18 years old, including extended projects with the Young Naturalist program. I also conceived and designed a piece of sound art that was installed just outside the Frick Environmental Center and harnessed the power of the rain to create constantly evolving soundscapes that could be heard inside the building. At the end of my residency, my contemporary music ensemble curated an evening-length performance and hike that included all of James Tenney’s “Postal Pieces” and a new, cell phone driven piece of performance art that was a collaboration with Naturalist Stephen Bucklin.    

3. What excited you about the internship? 
Much of my music is inspired by nature and natural sonic phenomena, so the opportunity to spend 12 weeks learning from and teaching with experts in environmental conservation and appreciation seemed perfect for me. The extended nature of this residency also allowed me to explore many of my creative interests rather than focusing on a single piece or performance. While the work presented has my name on it, much of the inspiration (and hard work) was provided by the staff at the Environmental Center, which made the residency feet like a true collaboration.

4. During your internship, what was your biggest challenge or surprise?
I actually found working in an office to be the most interesting part of my residency. So often the work of an artist is done alone and the opportunity to get immediate feedback or have someone stop by my desk just to chat about something interesting they heard in the park that morning really pushed my creative process in new directions. The cell phone piece that was featured in the final performance was a result of being cube-mates with Stephen and having a quick conversation over lunch one afternoon.

5. How do you engage with your discipline differently as a result of your internship?
My experiences this summer made me double-down on being committed to accessibility and inclusion in my work, both as a composer and continue to pursue collaborative projects outside of music.

Thank you, Ryan, for sharing your story and for your commitment to Pitt’s larger community.
Read further about Ryan’s residency on the Pittsburgh Parks Blog. And check back here for more stories of exceptional doctoral students!