Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Meeting in the Middle

Meeting in the Middle

By Rachel Wallach

If this were a movie, it would open with a montage blending Peabody’s Grand Arcade with Homewood’s Gilman Hall with the Maryland Institute College of Arts’ Brown Center. As the upbeat, slightly edgy music swells, a new image materializes: an enormous white 1930s-era building on Baltimore’s North Avenue, just east of Charles Street in the burgeoning Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

Inside the currently dilapidated building, trees stretch toward the sky. By this time next year, the trees will be gone, replaced by the contemporary studios, classrooms, offices, exhibition space, and equipment facilities that will provide the new brick-and-mortar component of an ongoing collaboration between Peabody, Hopkinsí Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and MICA.

The landmark 1939 art moderne building, originally the Centre Theatre, will house the new undergraduate Sound on Film program, drawing on the individual strengths of each institution to offer a combination almost unheard of in higher education. “There’s no other university that has this capacity with recording arts, composition, and film,” says Hollis Robbins, chair of Peabody’s Humanities Department.

Anchoring the new collaboration is Thomas Dolby–yes, that Thomas Dolby–who joined the Johns Hopkins faculty this summer as the first Homewood Professor of the Arts and serves as artistic director of the joint venture. Best known as the creator of the 1980s synthpop hit “She Blinded Me With Science,” Dolby is a digital music pioneer and entrepreneur; he brings a commercial as well as an artistic slant to Peabody, Homewood, and MICA students interested in film, recording arts, and mediafla resource sure to be in high demand in coming years.

The former Centre Theatre on North Avenue, future home of the joint MFA programs.
The former Centre Theatre on North Avenue, future home of the joint MFA programs.

“Whatever direction they go in, if a student graduates with a recording arts degree, they will likely get into the content creation side,” says Scott Metcalfe, director of Peabodyís Recording Arts and Sciences program. “It’s likely that even if their intention is music recording without a particular focus on image, at some point they will have to work on projects that involve pictures.”

Cut to a current classroom scene. Three students hunch over a web of computers and audio equipment. Technically, one studies composition, one studies recording engineering, and one studies filmmaking, but in this class, they collaborate on projects featuring all three.

The course, Sound on Film, was developed in 2009 when Metcalfe and Linda DeLibero, director of the Film and Media Studies program for the Krieger School, realized they both wanted broader horizons for their respective students. Since few of today’s media products use audio alone, Metcalfe wanted his recording arts students to gain video experience. DeLibero wanted her filmmaking students to learn the recording side, and wondered why Peabody’s composition students weren’t scoring her students’ films.

Now, in this class built around teams that include each specialty, they are. “That ratio has been a great way for students to not only learn their side of the craft but also experience what the other roles involve. Their preconceived notions are either validated or they get something different from what they expected. As an intro to that world, itís been very effective,” Metcalfe says of the course, which draws on the expertise of both departments.

This empty space will soon house classrooms, workstations, and a screening room.
This empty space will soon house classrooms, workstations, and a screening room.

At the same time, Film and Media Studies also offers a joint course with MICA, Narrative Filmmaking, in which small groups of Hopkins and MICA students produce short films based on student screenplays, some of which go on to compete in film festivals. The students work with others who may be unfamiliar, negotiate creative friction, and sometimes emerge with sustained friendships and collaborationsfljust as in a commercial studio. “The purpose is to get these kids used to working in an environment that reproduces a professional shoot as much as possible,” DeLibero says.

The success of both these course–which will continue to be offered–bodes well for the new Sound on Film program, which will be characterized by interdisciplinary collaboration, exploration of new roles, and an unusual depth and breadth of undergraduate learning. The new facility will add to this mix a dedicated space, state-of-the-art equipment, and specialized editing suites: a physical manifestation of the conceptual collaboration already in place.

“For us, it’s a real game-changer,” DeLibero says. “To have those three institutions come together will mean we have the capability to take our students through all aspects of filmmaking, from the screenplay all the way to post-production and everything in between, including music and sound design.”

Documentary-style, a voiceover provides some background: The Centre, which runs a full city block from North Avenue to 20th Street and is nicknamed T.E.N. (for 10 East North), is owned by Jubilee Baltimore, which received a $250,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development toward its redevelopment. When MICA announced plans to create an MFA in filmmaking and lease part of the building to house it, Hopkins’ Katherine Newman (then dean of the Krieger School) jumped at the chance to join in. The programs expect to share 20,000 square feet on the second floor.

Dovetailing with MICA’s planned MFA, Metcalfe and DeLibero, along with Johns Hopkins Faxon Fellow Roberto Busó-García, are developing a new MA program that will focus on screenwriting, sound design, and the business of filmmaking. This last component is crucial, as film production and marketing tend to offer more professional options than directing alone, DeLibero says.

Johns Hopkins has also invested, along with MICA and the Maryland Film Festival, in development of the nearby Parkway Theatre as a three-screen, 600-seat film center and live performance complex. It, too, will provide classroom space and screening rooms for the new Sound on Film program.

Program builder Scott Metcalfe
Program builder Scott Metcalfe

All this investment gives both Peabody and the Krieger School a new presence in Baltimore’s exploding Station North Arts and Entertainment Districtflwhich just happens to lie almost exactly halfway between the two campuses. The 20-square-block district was created in 2002 with tax incentives to spur arts-related redevelopment, and has since become home to galleries, studios, live music venues, theater groups, creative placemaking programs, and businesses serving long-term residents, students, and artists.

“This project opens up so much potential for creative collaboration, and that’s exciting,” says Andrew Frank, special adviser to university President Ronald J. Daniels. “But it will have an equally significant impact on the community and the surrounding neighborhoods, helping to create and sustain a safe, vibrant, and active Charles Street.”

MICA, which has played a major role in this redevelopment, is looking forward to collaborating with its new Johns Hopkins partners. “We’re breaking down the barriers of the institutions’ silos, sharing resources and expertise, co-teaching classes, seeing how the curricula can connect,” says Mike Molla, vice president for operations. “No other city has this depth of emerging video, film, and sound happening.”

Segue to scene after scene of enthralled filmgoers entering local theaters: In a perfect storm, the Maryland Film Festival, an annual five-day affair held each spring that presents more than 100 films from around the world to an estimated 20,000 movie-lovers, as well as programming films throughout the year, just completed a move into Station North from its previous main quarters at the Charles Theater. “May I be forgiven for thinking that, for the span of a few days, the center of cinematic gravity had shifted from wherever you’d usually look for it (Hollywood, New York, Paris) to Baltimore,” Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker about the festival in 2011.

The potential in connecting students to that center of gravity is enormous. Between the opportunities for internships and work experience; for workshops offered by professional filmmakers, sound designers, and composers affiliated with the festival; and for connections with the global film industry, there is very little a student could find in New York or Los Angeles that isnít available in Baltimore, DeLibero says. At the same time, thereís a chance to offer something of value to the public.

“We want that part of Station North to be a real of hub of both film and media education and a place to build a film culture for the community,” she says.

The credits roll against a backdrop of Thomas Dolby settling into his new office in the T.E.N. Building, while construction activities buzz around him. Before long, it will be time to start production on our filmís sequel