Betsi’s Sweet Spot, Compositions by Nero, Waveform Art, Brown Bag

Sweet Spots: Betsi’s Bottle Collection

From her time served as Graduate Director, some of the older students in the department may remember the sun room in Professor Betsi Grabe’s home.  An unusual collection of bottles is on display, set on personally crafted shelves that frame the picture window.  Betsi took the time to share with us the story behind the bottles and how her collection came to be.
Betsi began collecting bottles in primary school, by visiting landfills in South Africa.  She would search for buried bottles, wash them out, and then put them on display.  Amazed that they remained intact over time, her collection began to grow.  It now contains bottles from South African Breweries, other drink producers, medicine, and even poison.  Most are unmarked bottles of different sizes.  When she first came to the United States, she picked up a few more, including a Dr. Pepper bottle, but her collection is now complete.  When asked what the bottles mean to her, Betsi replied, “I think human beings are collectors.  Before I brought the collection to the US,  I remember collecting a few bottles for comfort – it was part of making the US my new nest.”  While her collection contains a wide variety, her most prized are the blue bottles.  They are not perfect.  Some have cracks, some have mother of pearl growths, some have both.  All of them have interesting shape and design.  “There is something about light traveling through colored glass that thrills me to no end.  They have a charm about them, a fragility, but have stood the test of time.”

The Compositions of Ashleigh Nero

As fast as you can, try and come up with a list of 5 composers.  Done? Ok. Now look at your list. If your list doesn’t contain Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach, give yourself a point. If your list contains at least  one composer from the 20th century, give yourself another point. If your list contains someone from this department, just forget about points and declare yourself the winner.  Ashleigh Nero, the newest member of the office staff received her Bachelors of Music in composition from the Jacobs School of Music in 2008.

Music has always been a focal point for Nero. Growing up near Pittsburgh she played in community orchestras, and joined the marching band in high school. An accomplished flautist, she discovered the art of composing while at home when an ailment prevented her from attending school. “I found this notation software and I started playing around with it. I knew how to play piano and stuff and I just started getting deeper and deeper into it.”  In her sophomore year of high school she began preparing her application to the composition program at Jacobs, which normally only admits about five students per year.

The act of composing is no easy task, and like much creative work, figuring out what to do is often the most difficult part.  “Every piece is different, and the hardest part is getting an idea, and figuring out what kind of mood you want.” However, once the idea is developed, Nero builds a basic structure, then noodles around with melodies and harmonies to coincide with the story she wants to convey. She works sequentially, starting at the beginning, and working her way through the piece.

In theory composition is limited only by the composer’s imagination, but when the rubber meets the road, one must take into account the people playing the music.  “You have to be really careful with fast passages, making sure the fingering is possible. If you write chords, are they possible?” As such, composers must be familiar with the instruments they are writing for. The sense of limits is one of the first thing budding composers at Jacobs learns. “Jacobs is really good at starting from the beginning, looking at each instrument and deciding what sorts of things are good for this instrument, and what sort of things will players get mad at you for.” For Nero, harps are the most difficult instrument to write for.  Every note in the musical scale on the harp has a pedal that either flattens or sharpens a note. As compositions change keys, harpists must have time to adjust the pedals to match the sharps and flats that correspond with the new key. While a composer may never gain the sense of familiarity with an instrument a player will, composers must rely on players for feedback, and study the work of others to get a feel for the type of things normally written for specific instruments. “You really have to reference things, talk to people who know how to play, be around the instruments, study what other people write, you have to get a feel for things. Flutes and Clarinets handle fast passages better than French horn for instance.”

Nero acknowledges that she and her fellow composers share a strange existence. “Composers are kind of on an island. What you are learning is more modern, so you’re kind of weird for the people into pop and rock, and you’re kind of weird for the orchestral people who are into Mozart and Beethoven.” As such, opportunities to become the next Gershwin or Copeland are few and far between. “You have to find the people who are more interested in going in a different direction, or take what you you can get and alter your style to fit the situation, which is something you should have to learn.”

One opportunity for innovative composition arose when Nero was asked by a professor from Vanderbilt conducting psychological research on fMRI. “He didn’t want kids to get freaked out from the sounds of the machine, so he asked me to compose a 30 minute piece so kids wouldn’t get too freaked out or too bored.” The professor sent her the sounds of the fMRI machine, and she composed her music around those.

Degree in hand, Nero is taking a bit of a breather. She still composes on the side in addition to pursuing other creative outlets, particularly painting and digital art. “I’m all about learning stuff, it leads to more opportunities. You learn one thing, and it inspires you in another way.”

Her showcase work is called The Dancing Elephant, written for piano and narration. It’s charming and whimsical, and you can listen to it right here. To hear more Nero’s work you can check out her blog here.


Norbert Herber’s collaboration with fiber artist Rowland Ricketts, “The Gradual Accumulation of Additional Layers or Matter,” was recently showcased in the Waveforms exhibition at the Grunwald Gallery of Art in the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts.  Running from October 21-November 18, Waveforms exhibition showcased works that explore the  interface between sound and new media technologies.  The exhibited works included “a number of trans-disciplinary interactions and collaborations that include sound in the context of visual and spatial artistic practices, including sound sculpture, installations, and performance works.” In case you missed it, you can get a feel for Norbert and Rowland’s project by following this link.

Brown Bag

This week’s brown bag presentation featured Cognitive Science and Psychology doctoral student Jared Lorince and Telecommunications and Cognitive Science doctoral student Travis Ross.  Jared’s research interests  focus on how the structure of the environment constrains behavior, in particular with respect to search behavior.  Travis research has two streams. The first stream examines the motivational aspects of design – particularly decision structures in game and interface design. The second stream examines how social and institutional forces shape behavior via social norms, rules, and laws.  You can listen to the full audio of their presentation here: Travis and Jared

Play how you want (or not): How the crowd modifies/limits individual
behavior in online games.


As modern games continue to move from single player to shared social experiences it is natural to wonder how the behavior of the crowd influences individual choices. In this talk Jared and Travis will present two avenues of research relevant to this question. Travis’ talk will center around his dissertation topic: Understanding of how norms alter behavior in an online game. In particular it asks the question: can norms push and individual toward cooperative or selfish behavior? Jared will then present examples of his work on spatial and information search, and will comment on its applications to gaming environments.


Nicky Lewis:  Betsi’s Bottle Collection, and Brown Bag

Mike Lang: The Compositions of Ashleigh Nero, and Waveforms