Lenfest 2015 Winner: Brad Garton

March 09, 2015

As an undergraduate at Purdue University, Brad Garton majored in pharmacy because “growing up in the Midwest, being a musician wasn’t a legitimate job.”

Then he met Ed Burns, an expert in sound perception on Purdue’s Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences faculty, who was an avant-garde jazz fan and accomplished tabla player.

He introduced Garton to musicians like the Ayler Brothers and Eric Dolphy and, perhaps most importantly, discouraged him from pursuing pharmacy. “I think he recognized that I wasn’t cut out for that particular academic niche,” Garton said.

Today, Garton is a professor of music and director of Columbia’s Computer Music Center, where he builds interactive music applications and composes new music that combines traditional instruments such as piano with computers.

“I feel very fortunate because this job allows me to pursue whatever creative muse is pointing in this way or that,” he said. “I try to provide the foundation for our students to be able to do that, too.”

Garton grew up in Columbus, Ind., the son of a state senator and an artist. He helped found a punk band called Dow Jones and the Industrials, where he produced sound effects and played keyboards, and got involved in digital music just as the technology of the early 1980s was making that possible.

After changing his major at Purdue, he went on to receive a Ph.D. in music at Princeton. There he met his second great mentor: Paul Lansky, a computer music composer on the Princeton faculty who inspired him to consider difficult, academic music in addition to his personal favorites such as Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel and the Talking Heads.

“I thought I would have to suffer through four years of horrible music. I got there and Lansky gave me a recording of some of his music, and I thought, `Wow! I’ve come to the right place.’”

Garton’s teaching style is deeply influenced by Lansky, who told him that a student must have a reason to attend the class besides earning a good grade. “This must be something that they want to do,” Garton said. “I have no problem finding motivated students with creative and innovative ideas. My job is to help them learn what they need to.”

As director of undergraduate studies in the Music Department, he often uses himself as Exhibit A in not underestimating what he calls “the fundamental randomness” of life. “I tell them that I’m a failed pharmacist!”

—by William McGuinness