Gaining Confidence

May 16, 2018

CCS Composer Preston Towers only undergraduate to present at San Diego CEMEC

by Emma Shapiro and Will Proctor

Preston Towers at CEMEC
Preston Towers at CEMEC

Preston Towers, a fourth-year Music Composition student at the College of Creative Studies (CCS), earned the honor as the only undergraduate student to present at the California Electronic Music Exchange Concert (CEMEC) at UC San Diego last month. 

CEMEC is a concert series designed to strengthen the connections between California educational institutions—including UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz, California Institute of the Arts, Mills College, and Stanford—that have strong computer and electronic music programs. Each concert features electronic and electroacoustic music by student composers, performers, computer musicians and installation artists from California universities.

Towers heard about CEMEC through the UCSB Music Department, and he believed it would be a great event to meet people in his field. He recalled, “It just seemed like an awesome opportunity to mingle with the composition students from other universities because I felt that I hadn’t had exposure to other places and the kind of music they create.” 

The piece Towers presented, titled “Real Men Drive Cars,” debuted at the first annual CCS Research and Creative Activities Conference (RACA-CON) this past Fall. Towers spent over 100 hours creating the fixed media audiovisual piece, and countless more thinking about the project. He described the piece as an exercise in musical catharsis. “It is a piece that deals with rather personal and intense subject matter, and is very genuine and raw.” Towers first created the audio, which is entirely Towers’ voice, sometimes manipulated electronically.

Once Towers had the audio set, he got to work creating the visual component. Towers had no experience with animation, but believed he could make a high-quality visual component with tools he had on his computer. “I was inspired by hearing about how a filmmaker who made a movie by recording everything on their iPhone and then editing it in iMovie,” explained Towers, who was exposed to this through an Intro to Film class at UCSB. “That made me think, ‘Hey, I have those things, I can make a visual.’” He created the animation by generating over 1,000 distinct frames in Pages, then exported each file twice–as a PDF and TIFF file–and finally arranged the file sequence in iMovie. The final product was just over four minutes long and featured over four thousand total frames. “It was definitely labor intensive,” reflected Towers with a smile. “If I were ever to do something like it again, I would probably choose a different and more efficient route.” 

Preston Towers
Preston Towers

Towers, who entered the CCS Music Composition program during his second year at UCSB, could not read music when he entered UCSB and used to consider himself a singer/songwriter, rather than a composer.  Coming from a different, non-traditional music background made the prospect of composing seem out of reach. Now in his fourth year, his composing skills and confidence have grown over three years of hands-on education by the CCS Music Composition faculty. But it was not until his CEMEC experience that his confidence matched his abilities. “This experience [at CEMEC] made me confident that I will be able to excel in graduate school and will find the right program for myself,” reflected Towers. Prior to presenting at CEMEC, the musician said he felt unsure about his abilities and whether he would be accepted to graduate school. Since presenting, he said these feelings have changed. “I feel inspired by the fact that I was received so well by Ph.D. students and master’s students,” noted Towers. “Before, I didn’t feel I was ready to make the transition [to graduate school] so quickly. Now that I have this experience, I realize that I probably was ready and I just couldn't see it.”

Presenting at CEMEC was the first time Towers thought of himself as a graduate-level composer. “In the arts, it feels like it’s hard to quantify what is considered graduate-level studies,” he said, “but then having this experience [...] helped me think about my future and my place as a composer.” The concert was a turning point for his confidence because he was able to exchange ideas as peers with graduate students. Moving forward, Towers hopes that he can carry on with this confidence and quality of work while he applies to graduate schools over the next year. No matter where he ends up, Towers has set a high bar for himself. “It feels a bit daunting because the expectations are now higher. I need to not let that get the better of me and continue to make art I am passionate about.”