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#GDTBATH: Kelli Smith-Biwer

Kelli Smith-Biwer’s research delves into 1950s home audio advertisements, with a focus on the construction of gendered buying and listening practices in high fidelity culture. A vital aspect of her work hinges on community engagement and activism.

Kelli Smith-Biwer in the Beat Lab. (Photo by Jess Abel)
Kelli Smith-Biwer in the Beat Lab. (Photo by Jess Abel)

Kelli Smith-Biwer is a fourth-year doctoral student in the department of music. Originally from Wichita, Kansas, Smith-Biwer received her M.A. in musicology from Michigan State University and B.A. in music education from Eastern Michigan University.

Smith-Biwer’s research delves into 1950s home audio advertisements, with a focus on the construction of gendered buying and listening practices in high fidelity culture. A vital aspect of her work hinges on community engagement and activism.

Smith-Biwer is also the inaugural Arts Everywhere Graduate Fellow in Music Technology. As part of her fellowship, Smith-Biwer works in both the Beat Lab – a studio with specialized recording and mixing equipment in the music department’s Hill Hall – and the Video Presentation Studio. On April 8, for Arts Everywhere Day, she and the UNC Electronic Music Club will perform at Hill Hall.

We caught up with Smith-Biwer in the Beat Lab for Graduate and Professional Student Appreciation Week.

What led you to Carolina to pursue your graduate degree?

The faculty at Carolina — they’ve been so welcoming and encouraging of my ideas. Mark Katz, my adviser, is a big name in technology and musicology. Even before starting my graduate work, I knew I wanted to work with him, but as I got to know all the faculty here, I realized there were so many people I could imagine working with. Even if their topic areas weren’t directly related to mine, there were all these interesting ways they were working to pull through threads, which showed me the many different directions I could think about with my work.

Tell us briefly about the focus of your research or area of study.

The keywords are gender and music technology. My dissertation is on 1950s home audio culture and masculinity in the United States. I’m using advertisements for different kinds of audio components — loudspeakers, record players, etc. — to build out a rich understanding of how masculinity was embodied, enacted and reproduced in the mid-20th century.

Describe a favorite experience (internship, project, travel, teaching, etc.) related to your graduate work.

Two come to mind. When I was getting my M.A. at Michigan State, my mentor, Lyn Goeringer, took me on an electrical walk around New York City. We used EMF (electromagnetic frequency) detectors to translate the electromagnetic frequencies into audio to listen to the electrical sounds of the city. That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

At Carolina, my favorite experiences have been times like a recent night in the Beat Lab. I held office hours and had a student at every single workstation in the room, asking me questions and doing something interesting and talking to each other.

It’s amazing to see how the Beat Lab has grown since the beginning of this project. At the beginning of my fellowship, I would come in for office hours and it would just be empty. I would stand in the hallway like a carnival barker trying to bring people in. And I feel like all that work is paying off. It also makes me really excited for the next Arts Everywhere Graduate Fellow in Music Technology.

What are you passionate about in your field?

I’m passionate about getting women and LGBTQ folks into technological spaces and feeling like they can explore and be brave. There’s a lot of fear — and a lot more at stake — for somebody who is queer or a woman when they come into a technological space and fail. I want to give them room to fail and be there for them so that I can catch them if they do.

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and you’re taking a break from your graduate work. Where would we find you?

Playing Ultimate Frisbee in Raleigh. It’s my community outside the Carolina community, and a great way to kind of just stay in shape. And it’s also how my husband and I met.

What advice would you give to future graduate students?

Get a hobby that requires you to go to a club once a week. It’s really important that graduate students have a support network outside of work because this is a job. Having a group of folks that loves you no matter what makes school a lot easier.

Read more stories from the College of Arts & Sciences at College.UNC.edu