Video feature: Freshman Seminar: 'Silence, Noise, Sound and Music'

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Students in the freshman seminar "Silence, Noise, Sound and Music: Everyday Experience and/as Art " are examining the issue of exploring internal and external silence. Music professor Barbara White, above, collaborates with 13 freshmen who are producing creative projects for this seminar. "It's exciting to me to see how thoughtful the students are," she said. "It's also exciting to see the creative spark emerging in the class."

Video stills by Evelyn Tu

Academic journeys begin with freshman seminars

Princeton's newest undergraduates are setting out on a path of inquiry and discovery this fall through the University's freshman seminar program.

Freshman seminars enable students to build strong relationships with faculty members and classmates in a close-knit intellectual setting. Many students cite the freshman seminar as one of the highlights of their time at Princeton.

Among other subjects, freshmen this fall are exploring forces that shape facial perception, issues related to global environmental change, experiences with sound and music, and notions of individuality. A total of 480 freshmen are enrolled this semester in 35 seminars, each of which is hosted by a residential college. Class discussions often continue in informal settings both on and off campus, through meals, guest lectures, field trips and other activities.

This is part of a series of features highlighting freshman seminars offered at Princeton this semester. Other features:

When Princeton music professor Barbara White faced a number of personal health challenges that affected her ability to experience music, she channeled her coping into a new field of artistic exploration.

In this video, White explains how her experience led her to a journey in search of silence. It is a personal odyssey that she now is sharing with a group of freshmen as a unique learning experience.

"Eventually, this led me to think of a freshman seminar which would deal with the elusiveness of quiet and then the things that are not so quiet, such as noise, sound and music," White said about the course, "Silence, Noise, Sound and Music: Everyday Experience and/as Art," which is designated as the Professor Roy Dickenson Welch Freshman Seminar in Music.

This seminar considers the varied, intriguing — and, sometimes, perplexing — ways that human beings receive, digest and reshape their sonic landscapes. The course began with the freshmen searching as a group for silence on campus. It continued with an individual creative project exploring the topic in ways that blur the boundary between everyday life and the specialized realm of art.

For her first creative project in the seminar, freshman Katie Welsh chose to create an experimental piece of music out of recorded everyday sounds from her experiences around campus. She began the piece with all of the sounds layered on top of each other. Then she methodically stripped each one away until all that was left was her breathing.

"I was inspired to do this project because I made this observation during the class that silence was something we could move towards," Welsh said. "It was meant to imitate the order in which I kind of strip away sound when I move toward silence in my routine. My first step, typically, would be to go inside, take away the leaves outside, take away the cars going by."

She added, "This project conveyed that silence is something that we can't attain. We are living beings. We are meant to create sound." 

"Since the students aren't necessarily required to have any artistic background," White said, "one of the things we're doing is playing with the notion of what art might be and who might be an artist.

"It's also interesting to us who don't think of ourselves as specialists to explore making art with what's right in front of us," she added.

Along with teaching undergraduate and graduate students in Princeton's Department of Music, White is an active clarinetist who composes for new music ensembles, orchestras and operas.