Voxman Music Building opens new chapter for University of Iowa music school

'It's really pretty incredible'

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IOWA CITY — When you step inside the University of Iowa’s new $189 million Voxman Music Building, you feel a little like you didn’t. It’s that bright. There are that many windows.

Take a few steps forward — maybe scale or descend the grand concrete steps to your left and right — and you notice at every turn architectural intricacies, creative nuances and inspired additions that together produce a functional masterpiece.

“Some people have called this the most complex building built on the University of Iowa campus, and that has a lot to do with how this building functions acoustically,” UI School of Music Director David Gier said.

And yet despite the 190,000-square-foot building’s grandeur and technological sophistication, he said, it’s still just a tool at the whim of the brilliance inhabiting it.

“One of the most exciting things, honestly, about this building is how our creative students are going to respond to it,” Gier told The Gazette. “What they’re going to do in this space, that we can’t predict.”

The UI School of Music, which boasts about 450 graduate and undergraduate students, has a threefold mission:

l Educate future performers, scholars, therapists, educators and other musical professionals while also accommodate undergraduates who take elective music courses

l Support faculty research and professional work including performances

l Engage the public through an average of 350 events annually.

That vast array of uses — from individual practices and ensemble rehearsals to lectures and research in the Rita Benton Music Library — requires a building with depth and complexity.

“We have specialized spaces for percussion and music therapy and electronic music and recording technology,” Gier said. “So there’s a lot of attention paid to acoustic isolation so all these people can do all this stuff all at the same time.”

Students who have been living in the limbo of post-2008 flood survival — and even those new to campus — “ooh” and “ahh” when the step in the front door at the downtown corner of Clinton and Burlington streets. And Gier said he believes — at least in part — that has to do with the possibilities the structure holds — for the university, the state and the globe.

“That’s the real cool unfolding story in the next five to 15 years,” he said, “how that activity makes its way out into the world.”

‘Torn asunder’

In June 2008, with the UI’s annual music camp in full swing and many faculty out of town, the Iowa River swelled beyond what anyone had seen. Staff and volunteers raced the rising river to move instruments, computers, filing cabinets and paintings to the music building’s second floor, then part of Hancher Auditorium.

After the waters subsided, faculty and staff returned to devastation. Gier has said “our community was torn asunder” as it waded into what would become an eight-year nomadic period involving temporary venues, makeshift studios and questions around what would come next for the then-102-year-old school and how it would get there.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency eventually agreed to provide funding for the School of Music replacement, and the project forged ahead. But, Gier said, the time it took to create a new facility forced faculty and staff to be resilient in their commitment to quality programming.

The school initially was scattered to 17 locations. Gier stressed that students were well-served during that period due to the dedication of professors, instructors, graduate students, staff and administrators. But, he said, they still missed things.

Such as fine concert spaces, for example.

“I always like to say that concert halls are kind of the equivalent of laboratories to science,” he said. “You can do things in other places, but you can’t do them as well.”

The school also missed the opportunity for natural and easy collaboration afforded through space-sharing.

“Music is an incredibly collaborative discipline, and we were not under one roof,” Gier recalled. “So we missed out on all the really important serendipitous kind of unplanned things that happen when you’re just sharing the same space.”

Tim Stalter, director of UI choral activities, called the school’s dispersion the “biggest challenge” of the temporary accommodations and named reunification among the greatest benefits of the new facility.

“Now we’re all together, and it is really stimulating and exciting,” he said. “Colleagues I may have only seen a couple times a semester — I see them now several times a day.”

Over the past eight years, Stalter said he was grateful for the performance and practice spaces the university provided — as other departments and colleagues scrambled for temporary space as well. But those provisional spaces often were tainted by ambient noise — vehicles passing outside, sirens, even residential neighbors running water.

“I am glad to move away from them,” he said.

Technology and musical evolution

This new building — while bringing faculty and students together — also does a remarkable job of separating them.

“The public won’t really fully appreciate what this building is until they step inside and see just how soundproofed all the rooms are — from the floors to the walls,” Stalter said. “When we practice, when we are working with students, we don’t have other extraneous sounds coming in from the outside.”

Giant glass doors that slowly slide open are crafted to completely seal sound in — or out. Artistic ceilings, walls and floors are designed for acoustic excellence.

Artificial light works with natural light spilling in through 12,400 square feet of glass walls to create ideal ambience. The new building’s Stark Opera Studio has the exact stage footprint as the new Hancher Auditorium, enabling rehearsals for the performing arts venue.

And then there’s the recording technology. Stalter said Voxman sets up students to produce top-quality sound.

“It’s a state-of-the-art building, and it is so highly refined in its sophistication — technologically as well as in terms of sound — it’s going to make everybody better,” Stalter said. “It’s going to be a place that is going to really launch them into their careers.”

And those careers are shifting with the university’s musical evolution.

Performers and teachers in training have more tools at their disposal through fast and easy recording options and the ability to launch a brand through the internet and using social media. Mary Cohen, associate professor of music education, teaches a broad spectrum of students — from those who want to pursue elementary musical education to those conducting advanced research.

She also runs a prison-based choir and is writing a book on the topic — which is on track to be featured in an independent documentary. The Oakdale Choir, based in Coralville’s Iowa Medical and Classification Center, launched in 2009 as a graduate seminar and over the years has involved more than 100 inmates and more than 100 community volunteers and students.

The choir, about to begin fall semester practices, involves 60 to 65 participants at any one time — about half of whom are “inside” singers and the other half are students and community members. Cohen said the choir, which over the years has produced 107 original songs, exemplifies the creative ventures that have and can grow out of the UI school.

‘Competing for the best’

On Monday, the first day of UI classes and the first day Voxman allowed public visitors, Sam Vaske, 22, reclined in the near silence of the structure’s new music library. A first-year master’s student in music therapy, Vaske — who just graduated from Coe College — said she chose UI for its program.

But its new state-of-the-art home was a bonus. Or perhaps bonus is an understatement.

“It’s beautiful,” Vaske said. “I’m excited to use the rehearsal facilities and the practice rooms. And this library is awesome.”

Vaske’s pursuit of music therapy — using it to help with special-needs individuals and in hospital settings — is a growing field. And, she believes, the UI program and facility has her in the perfect place to help continue its climb.

She said it also likely will be a big selling point for other students pursuing the vast array of musical career options, and director Gier confirmed it absolutely helps with recruiting.

“We’re all competing for the best and brightest,” he said. “In the end, students are going to come because of the programs and the people. But they are going to come here and check us out.”

When they do, he said, the facilities will hook them — allowing the professors, students and programs to reel them in.

“They are going to know they have an environment where they can succeed,” he said. “And then they are going to realize the instruction, the experience, matches the facility, and we are going to be able to do even better in competing for the very finest students in the state of Iowa and beyond.”

He expressed gratitude UI administrators value the arts across campus — pointing to the commitment to reinvest in Hancher, the studio arts building, the school of music, and the art museum, all of which were lost in the flood.

“I think a lot about what could have happened in 2008 and 2009,” Gier said. “Economic downturn, the flood happens. It’s easy to imagine a president saying, ‘Gosh, you know, now’s the time to retrench.’

“Sally Mason and central administration made that bold decision to rebuild and to reinvest and to do it the right way. It’s taken a lot of effort and a lot of hard, work but we’ve started this new chapter, and it’s really pretty incredible.”

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