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Microsoft Pri0

Welcome to Microsoft Pri0: That's Microspeak for top priority, and that's the news and observations you'll find here from Seattle Times technology reporter Matt Day.

April 3, 2008 at 2:08 PM

Microsoft ethnomusicologist to be dean of conservatory

Brian Pertl has been at Microsoft since 1992. He heads up a small group in charge of media acquisitions. Now he’s going to be dean of a music school. Update, Friday morning: Listen to a clip of Pertl’s music after the jump.

We got word of his new gig at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music this afternoon.

Microsoft ethnomusicologist Brian Pertl will be dean of Lawrence University Conservatory of Music beginning July 1.

I only thought to write about it because the fact Pertl’s position even exists at Microsoft is a great reminder of how vast the company is and how many people are tucked away in various corners of campus working very interesting jobs.

Ethnomusicologist is not the first thing that springs to my mind when you say “software giant” or even “technology company.”

Pertl appeared in a couple of stories we wrote about Microsoft in the mid-1990s (and several others on jazz, the didjeridu, etc.). In this one, Michele Matassa Flores — one of several people still at The Seattle Times who have done a stint on the Microsoft beat — describes how Pertl joined the company:

“When Brian Pertl was hired by Microsoft, he had unusual qualifications: the ability to play two obscure musical instruments, the Tibetan trumpet and Australian didjeridu.

In fact, when he arrived on the Redmond campus in 1992 he knew little about computers. He had traveled the world, won a prestigious fellowship and was about to earn his doctorate, but what interested Microsoft was the didjeridu. (Update: Click here for an excerpt of Pertl playing his piece, “Seattle Crow”.)

Pertl was hired temporarily to record two pieces of music for Microsoft’s multimedia CD-ROM “Musical Instruments.” He was working toward an ethnomusicology degree at the University of Washington at the time, studying the music of different cultures, when a Microsoft manager who knew someone at the school came looking for an expert player of the didjeridu, an uncommon instrument formed from a hollowed-out tree limb. The temporary stint led to others, and last summer Pertl, 33, was hired full time to manage all music used on Microsoft’s consumer software.

Two things about this are striking: that Microsoft, maker of spreadsheets and computer-operating systems, would recruit from a music school at all; and that it would hire someone just to get a piece played on a didjeridu.

I sent Pertl an e-mail this afternoon asking for more details on his recent exploits at Microsoft. Lawrence Univevrsity, in Appleton, Wis., said he’s “been the media acquisitions manager since 1998, overseeing a team of 40 employees, contractors and vendors and managing a $5 million budget.” I’ll update this post if I hear back.

Update, 9:30 p.m.: Pertl responded about five hours ago and I updated this post then, but a glitch in our publishing system seems to have lost the update. So here it is again:

Pertl heads the Media Acquisitions Group, “the team that gets all of the third-party images, music, and video for Microsoft products. All of the images on MSN, and all of the music in the Project Gotham Xbox titles come through my team,” he wrote.

Since joining Microsoft, he has continued to perform and lecture on music through Humanities Washington.

He wasn’t looking to leave Microsoft. Here’s the story of how he finds himself heading back to academia:

I love my job at Microsoft and never imagined leaving. Last October I was playing a concert at my alma mater, Lawrence University, and one of my old professors asked me if it was OK if he nominated me for the open Dean of the Conservatory of Music position. The proposal seemed almost laughable to me at the time since I left my Ph.D. program 15 years earlier and had been working at Microsoft ever since. I have great respect for this professor, so I said I would throw my hat into the ring. Two months later I was a finalist.

During the 3 days of interviews I came to realize that nearly every problem facing the Conservatory had a direct correlation to problems I face every day at Microsoft! So when they offered me the position, I knew that it was the perfect job. It combined my passion for music and education with all of the management skills I had learned at Microsoft.

The only issues were leaving Microsoft, and leaving Seattle—two very difficult things to walk away from. The realization that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity tipped the balance.

Pertl, the trumpet and didjeridu player added, “Sorry if that was long-winded.”

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