Columbia students to be a part of rock ‘n’ roll legend Jon Anderson’s upcoming album


Ignacio Calderon

Sean McKee’s students collaborating with lead singer of the rock band Yes, Jon Anderson (on screen), to help mix one of his albums.

By Kaci Watt

Thirteen students sit in Studio C, filed into the rows of lecture hall-style seats. They are staring at a screen—the class is on a Skype call. An ordinary-looking man sits in his home animatedly talking about his passion: music. But he is no ordinary man; he is rock ‘n’ roll legend Jon Anderson.

Anderson, frontman of the English rock band Yes, and his writing partner, 1995 Audio Arts and Acoustics alumnus Sean McKee, are conducting a course in which students get to be a part of the music-mixing process for Anderson’s upcoming album.

The course, “Musical Soundscape Design & Mixing in 5.1,” is an advanced-topics course offered in the Audio Arts and Acoustics Department. The course allows students to experience working on a professional album, according to Associate Chair of the Audio Arts and Acoustics Department Benj Kanters.

While McKee technically teaches the course, it will also include Skype sessions with Anderson, a Grammy award-winning Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee who has sold 50 million albums. Together, the two will provide students high-level musical aesthetic and philosophical insights, including how sound and music can affect the mind and body, McKee said in a Feb. 6 email to The Chronicle.

McKee asked music engineer Ryan Black to be a part of the process. Black’s role will be to provide “the secrets to the special-mix engineering sauce we are using to achieve the lush textures and soundscapes we are going for,” McKee said. He added that this is being done so students can witness the dynamic between music makers and engineers.

“This is an opportunity to rethink what it means to mix music. Not as a song, per se, but as a soundscape,” Kanters said. “This really does point toward a new part of the audio discipline. The Audio Arts and Acoustics Department is in the midst of developing curriculum in immersive audio.”

Kanters said he intentionally wrote a course description that would allow it to cover other projects in the future. 

Before the class was greenlighted, they needed to make sure the technology would work, which is where Chief Engineer David Knuth came in, Kanters said. 

Once the technology was perfected, word about the course needed to be spread.

Kanters sent out an email invitation in December to all junior and senior-level students in the Audio Arts and Acoustics Department to make them aware of the course. While the course was formally announced after registration for the Spring 2019 semester, the class easily filled up, Kanters said.

The album, six years in the making, has no set release date, McKee said. Once the album mixing is complete, they will turn the project over to the Interactive Arts and Media Department for the visual creation, he added.

McKee also teased a number of high-profile guest artists on the album.

As of now, the visual components are in the early stages of development, said Chair of the Interactive Arts and Media Department Joseph Cancellaro.

“[Because it is going to be a virtual-reality experience], some of the questions we’re raising are: ‘Do you want the visuals to be triggered by the soundtrack, the music track?’; ‘Do you want it to be triggered by the user in the space listening to your music?’; [or] ‘Do you want the visuals to be triggered by the brain waves that you’re monitoring while you’re listening to the music?’” Cancellaro said. “There’s all sorts of things we can do. We have to just get that narrowed down.”

Anderson said in a Feb. 6 email to The Chronicle the decision to incorporate college students into the mixing process was simple.

“It seemed logical to find a way to embrace young talent and work with them on any kind of level,” Anderson said. “The chance to be at Columbia is truly wonderful on many levels. We will be learning from the students as they will be learning from our project.”