Looking at life behind the PAC’s technology

Courtesy / Nate Bliton
Nate Bliton

Courtesy photo

Courtesy / Nate Bliton Nate Bliton

Mary Mattingly

Nate Bliton is known as the man behind Grand Valley State University’s equipment and stage management for all of the music and dance departments, but that wasn’t his original career choice.

“I moved to Grand Rapids to be a musician,” Bliton said. “All my training was not toward technology.”

After completing his bachelor’s of music and master’s in music composition at Michigan State University, where he majored on viola, Bliton moved to Grand Rapids in August 2011.

“I had a couple friends who worked (at GVSU),” Bliton said. “They told me about the job opening.”

From his undergraduate and graduate days at MSU in the composition program, Bliton knew Jonathan Nichol, current professor of saxophone at GVSU. Nichol was on the search committee when the opening for a manager position opened up and he notified Bliton.

“We were looking for someone to work evenings, manage recordings,” Nichol said. “I knew (Bliton) had just moved to the area. Because of his varied background, he has definitely filled a gap in the day to day operations of (the Performing Arts Center).”

Although it wasn’t his original path, Bliton knew about technology having been surrounded by computers at a young age.

“I grew up a computer programmer,” Bliton said. “It was basically the family business.”

His mother was an engineer and his brother went to school for recording. Bliton remembers reading his brother’s recording textbooks and his mother showing him how to use composing software.

“It was easy software,” Bliton said. “Before I knew what notes were called, I got used to recognizing shapes.”

While at MSU, Bliton worked for the recording services, and for the music department’s IT section.

“Basically what I do now, but for minimum wage back then,” Bliton said.

At GVSU, Bliton has a number of duties. He locks computers, locks rooms for the night and maintains an inventory of all recording equipment, chairs, stands and pianos. Day to day, he ensures that recitals and concerts run smoothly and is responsible for audio/video recording.

Outside of his PAC responsibilities, Bliton is also involved in many projects. Past compositions include a viola trio, influenced by a childhood of playing folk music. His piece, “Heavy and Unfinished” was played by Triola, a trio made up of Bliton and two other violists he knew from State. They performed at the Taneycomo Festival in Branson, Mo. He also played a big part in last semester’s video-dance collaboration, set to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. Using open source software language and the Kinect, a sensor used by Xbox, Bliton wrote code which translated into animation that dancers could interact with.

Bliton also utilizes his technological background to work on musical innovations. For a research design class at MSU, Bliton built an instrument out of plywood and electronics. The arduino, or brain, controlled the invention, dubbed a Bovalve. It sits on a keyboard stand, and is controlled by connected sensors which form an interphase. The right hand is the bow and the left hand features three valves like a French Horn. A lever controls intervals or partials, and pitch control is done with the left hand by bending the thumb, such as with a theremin.

“The idea was to have the phrasings of a bow and pitch control of a valve instrument,” Bliton said.

The instrument, built with the help of Bliton’s professor, Dan Marsh, was featured in Make Magazine in 2007.

Since coming to GVSU, Bliton has written several new compositions. Recently, he wrote Kája Lill, a bass piece for his senior recital. Lill had given Bliton cassette tapes to convert to a digital format. These tapes were recorded conversations that Lill’s parents and grandparents exchanged to communicate after Lill’s parents emigrated from the Czech Republic to America in 1979.

“I asked (Bliton) about a year ago to write a piece for solo/electric bass,” Lill said. “He was already working with the tapes, I got the idea to use them in the piece.”

“It was a little bit of electronics. I manipulated a tape of his grandfather speaking Czech,” Bliton said.

“I never met my grandfather, but it was meaningful for me to be able to interact with him,” Lill said.

When it comes to composition, both Bliton’s music and technological background come into play.

“Marrying popular and classical music, blurring lines,” Bliton said. “Installing the electronic and the non-music aspect is a big part of it.”

At GVSU, Bliton is able to focus on his musical ambitions.

“I moved to Grand Rapids to do music, get my solo project back together,” Bliton said. “I have goals of performing a lot more.”

Aside from being on GVSU’s staff, Bliton plays in the Chamber Orchestra and the Early Music Ensemble.

“He’s an excellent violist, a composer, a master programmer,” Nichol said. “He’s able to do anything really well. He is definitely not boxed in by his job description.”
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