Tuned In

The Bob Crewe Foundation Brings Music to MECA

By: Katy Kelleher

Josh Creeger, class of 2018, is among the first students to experiment with Maine College of Art’s state-of-the-art recording facility, thanks to the recently endowed Bob Crewe Program in Art and Music. Photo: Kyle Dubay.

Downstairs at Maine College of Art (MECA), underneath the warren of paint-splattered classrooms and clay-speckled studios, is hidden something rather unexpected—an Avid S6 mixing console. Enclosed in sound-dampening walls made of red birch, this expensive and highly technical piece of equipment is thought to be the only one of its kind in New England. Its closest relative is the one used at the Saturday Night Live studio in New York City.

There’s a reason this fine arts college has a state-of-the-art sound studio, and that reason is Bob Crewe. Born in 1930 in New Jersey, Crewe was a creative polyglot—he was a songwriter (he penned “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and numerous other hits), a musician (he recorded with Michael Jackson, Patti LaBelle and Barry Manilow), a theatrical muse (a supporting character in Jersey Boys is based on him), a producer and a visual artist. Although Crewe passed away in 2014, his legacy lives on at MECA through the creation of a unique (the college believes it is the first of its kind) transdisciplinary program that encourages students to play with the overlaps and intersections of music and art. “Art and music belong together,” says Dan Crewe, who has been involved with the creation and implementation of the program at MECA from its inception. For both Crewe brothers, the symbiotic relationship between visual arts and sound arts has always been self-evident. “You can close your eyes and listen to great music, and you see things,” says Dan Crewe. “You can look at a great painting and see music in the picture.”
“In its inception, we knew that the academic program would be committed to experimentation,” says Ian Anderson, vice president of academic affairs and dean. “We know we could never compete with traditional conservatories like NEC or Oberlin, but we also didn’t want to. Instead, we wanted to see what would happen if you created a curriculum of music, with great facilities and a faculty who has a broad interest in sound. Will that change the kind of art our students might make? And will it effect the music they make?” While other art colleges may have a sound major and encourage students to integrate audio elements into their artwork, the MECA program is a little looser. Students can pursue a music minor that is unrelated to their field of study, or they can use the music courses to complement their work, creating soundtracks for films, animations or other integrated projects. Students can also use the equipment to make sound art.

The facility was financed by a $3 million grant from the Bob Crewe Foundation. “Having such a high-quality studio raises the stakes for students,” says Steve Drown, assistant professor of music and coordinator of the Bob Crewe Program in Art and Music. “When students come down here, they think differently. They create differently.” While the program is still new, students have already embraced the freedom to play with genres and mediums. Cara Beglin, a ceramics major and member of the class of 2018, recently constructed a series of sculptures of encased speakers from which she played a voice collage of her own making, for example, and numerous other students have used the studio to record their own music and spoken-word art.

Crewe would no doubt be pleased by this cross-disciplinary creation. “My brother was a visual-aural person. He saw music. When he wrote songs, he was seeing what he was writing,” explains Dan Crewe. Just steps away from the recording studio is the Bob Crewe Gallery, which features pieces of Bob’s highly textured and abstract visual art alongside artifacts and memorabilia from his career in the music business. Although it is difficult to draw a clear line from the dark and dramatic driftwood sculptures to Bob’s catchy and compelling music, that’s not really necessary. It’s in the spirit of the program that some conceptual threads are left tangled—this is, after all, how the artist’s mind often functions.

“There’s a line in Jersey Boys that is authentic where Bob says to an arranger in the studio, ’I want to hear clouds,’” Dan Crewe recalls. “He really said that, and he knew exactly what he meant.” Now, students at MECA will have the opportunity to embrace the same creative process.

Katy Kelleher is the author of the book Handcrafted Maine. She lives in Buxton, ME, where she works as a freelance writer, editor and teacher.

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