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Faculty Spotlight: Howard Sandroff

October 28, 2013
By Megan Kirby 

Composer and professor of sound art Howard Sandroff’s vast technical knowledge lends itself to a surprising hobby—building his own flashlights to use for scuba diving.

 “I’m what you call a flash-a-holic,” he says. “I’m looking at my kitchen, and I have 20 flashlights sitting on the counter. My wife thinks I’m crazy.” These flashlights serve as an interesting metaphor for Sandroff’s decades pioneering sound art technology: as a man constantly building new technology to explore unknown depths. 

Sandroff's prolific career illustrates the wide reach of sound art. He made a name for himself pioneering the artistic application of sound technologies in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.  His music compositions have been performed worldwide and he’s been a composer and sound engineer for films and commercials. He was also one of the first composers to incorporate personal computers and commercial MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface) electronics into live musical performances, which allowed him to control all digital aspects of a performance from a microcomputer. His compositions often combine live musicians with electronic sounds, including recordings of human voices. Today at Columbia College Chicago, he teaches sound art students in the Audio Arts and Acoustics Department. He also recently began working in steel, creating sculptures that can be performed by percussionists. 

“In music, I try to freeze time, so it is almost like a piece of sculpture,” Sandroff says, “to try to take something that moves through time and freeze it and approach it in a way that you might approach a 3D object.” 

So what exactly is sound art? “Certainly, music is sound art, although depending on your point of view, not all sound art is music,” Sandroff says. A broad definition encompasses everything from music composition to interactive sound installations in galleries to Sandroff's steel sculptures. Basically, sound art is anywhere sound and art meet. 

Sandroff got his first tape recorder at age 13 and started playing around with it during music lessons. “From that moment on, electronics and manipulating musical sounds dominated my life—that combination of music, electronics and sound,” he says.

A native Chicagoan, Sandroff tried his luck with the European music scene at the start of his career. After graduating with an M.A. from Chicago Musical College in 1976 and doing advanced work at MIT, he headed overseas. “Chicago is a great place to have an artistic career, but a terrible place to launch one,” he says. He began performing, composing and teaching in Chicago, where his success continues today, although most of his compositions are performed outside of the United States. 

In 1978, then chair of the music department William Russo recruited Sandroff to teach at Columbia. Today, Sandroff teaches sound art to upperclassmen, imparting the importance of artistic expression to students who already mastered technical skills.

As a professor, he shares his decades of experience but never brings his own work into the classroom. “The classroom is not an exhibition vehicle for my work,” he says. “The classroom is the student’s time. But all of the processes and artistic challenges I’m involved in find their way into the curriculum.” If a curious student asks about his compositions, he’ll point them toward the library or the Internet. 

Whether he’s pioneering sound art technology or building flashlights, Sandroff continues to illuminate new depths. This past summer, he went diving in Lake Michigan. His original interest in building his own diving lights has turned into a quest for the perfect portable flashlight. “It’s cold, it’s dark, and it’s deep,” he says of the lake, but with his trusty flashlights in tow, he was ready to explore under the surface.