An Extraordinary Opening Night for Berklee’s New State-of-the-Art Tower

The dedication of Berklee’s new tower at 160 Massachusetts Avenue was anything but your standard ribbon-cutting ceremony.

March 4, 2014

The dedication of Berklee’s new tower at 160 Massachusetts Avenue on Wednesday, February 26, was anything but your standard ribbon-cutting ceremony. For students, the event was a unique interdisciplinary learning experience. For faculty, the dedication represented the dawn of new educational possibilities. For Berklee president Roger H. Brown, it was a deeply personal moment. For all involved, it was the start of something big.

Click on the image to the right to launch photo slideshow. You may also download the program from the event.

A New Chapter

Featuring Back Bay views that neighbors pay millions for, Berklee’s new 16-story, state-of-the-art skyscraper will provide housing for 370 students. Spanning 14,000 square feet, the complex includes 20 practice rooms, a fitness center, and 10 recording studios that Brown says “rival any in the United States, including commercial enterprises like Lucasfilm and the major Hollywood studios.”

The excitement about these facilities was palpable among the Berklee community attending the building dedication. Kaitlin MacLean Daley, a student resident assistant who has moved into the new building, says it is “nothing short of incredible.”

Faculty members were no less enthusiastic. Dan Thompson, Music Production and Engineering (MP&E) Department assistant chair, noted that the building opens up new curriculum possibilities; for instance, it includes a scoring stage where a sizable orchestra can record to picture, yielding an orchestral recording techniques course that would not have been possible in the past.

Thompson says, “These new spaces enable students to work across departments in the same way that you do in the industry with teams of professionals working together toward a common goal, and that really speaks to what Berklee’s all about.”

The perfect example was the dedication ceremony itself, which served as a rich and immersive learning experience for several Berklee students.

A Unique Dedication

At the dedication, student bands performed music along with a dynamic light show on the new building, which drew stares from curious onlookers throughout Boston’s Back Bay. As the band Isis Lune, led by student Ella Joy Meir from Kiryat Tiv’on, Israel, performed an original song, “Bring Me the Moon,” synced multicolored lights shimmered and darted across the building to suggest a moonrise.

Students in Berklee Interdisciplinary Arts Institute (BIAI) director Neil Leonard’s seminar had planned this out weeks in advance, working alongside veteran lighting designer John Powell, whose portfolio includes large-scale projects such as a colorfully lit drawbridge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The key breakthrough in enabling this piece of performance art came thanks in large part to the work of student Dalton Harts and Jason Lim '13, who came to Berklee from Edinburgh, Scotland, to study with Electronic Production and Design (EPD) faculty. Lim also played guitar at the dedication with his band, Charlie the Most. He explains how he and other students were able to harness music and lights to “play the building” as if it were an instrument.

“We used the building’s ethernet and UDP, which is an open sound control (OSC) format, with Raspberry Pi computers—one on each floor plugged directly into the ethernet connection receiving OSC messages from anywhere in the building connected to the same network,” Lim says. “Then each of those computers was converting the OSC data to MIDI, and then MIDI was converted to a DMX lighting protocol via a microcontroller converter that I designed using Arduino, which is an open-source microcontroller platform that I use for prototyping.”

If that sounds complicated, it is, says Powell, the lighting expert, but he says it worked thanks to Lim, Harts, and other Berklee EPD students who were “incredibly open and seriously technically savvy.”

Those students included Audriana Acuña, from San Antonio, Texas, and Jonas Margraf, from Bochum, Germany, who performed at the event as a duo called Sune and also worked, along with other students in Leonard’s BIAI seminar, on everything from “assembling the electronics of this whole system to soldering, drilling holes into the light fixtures, and helping out with some of the software,” says Margraf.

Watch a short film about the making of the “Play the Building” event at the dedication of 160 Mass Ave.:

Acuña, who collaborated with another student, Yun Yun Huang, on sound design as part of the installation, says that working with lights was new terrain but that she has taken software programming courses that have prepared her to work on integrating a lighting system with MIDI in this way. The project fit perfectly with the mission of the BIAI, Leonard says, which is “to help musicians work with artists outside of music, often through hands-on projects and encounters with professionals in the field.”

In this case, that professional was Powell, who says that the resulting installment required not only technologically savvy students, but also a “smart” structure itself.

“This building at 160 Mass. Ave. is not an ordinary building, in more ways than one,” Powell says. “Normally, if you’re dealing with an existing building, this (project) would be an utter nightmare. I know the guys who put the colored lights on the top of the Empire State Building a couple years ago. They literally had to rewire the building, (whereas) at Berklee, it’s well thought out and it’s just going to be an incredible building.”

A Dream Realized

Boston’s new mayor, Marty Walsh, shared sentiments similar to those of Powell. The mayor discussed Berklee’s new addition as a major boost to Boston’s artistic, cultural, and educational cachet.

“I see these amazing glass walls and I know that you’re inviting the community to take part in what goes on here,” Walsh said.

For Brown, the building’s dedication carried a special significance because the opening occurred shortly after his father, Roger H. Brown, Sr., passed away. The elder Brown was an engineer who had looked at all the blueprints and schematics for the new building.

“He believed in infrastructure as a tool that unlocks human creativity and productivity,” Brown said, “so I think my dad would be very, very proud and happy if he could be with us here today.”

As the dedication demonstrated, even before it opened, Berklee students were busily putting their creativity to work at the new building. Meir, the lead singer of Isis Lune, says that she and her BIAI classmates decided to begin the night’s music and lighting performance with “Bring Me the Moon” because the song is “about daring to think big and to believe in magic.”

“I feel like that’s what this building is about,” Meir says. “It’s Roger Brown’s big dream and we all get to enjoy it now.”