Garrett Parrish receives the 2017 Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts

Posted on May 22, 2017 by Sharon Lacey

“In high school I was always flying to robotics tournaments and then to jazz festivals in the same day,” says Garrett Parrish, the 2017 recipient of the Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts. Over time, his engineering projects and music projects merged. Parrish, who graduates this year with a degree in Mechanical Engineering with a special concentration in entertainment technology, explains, “That’s really due to MIT. When I discovered the Media Lab and found the Opera of the Future Group, I realized, wow, people can do both at the same time. You can be working on a music show and writing code or designing robots.”

Parrish got involved at MIT while still in high school—taking computer classes through the Educational Studies Program (ESP), enrolling in an ocean engineering program (OEX), and working on projects with the Edgerton Center and the Opera of the Future group. But when it came time to apply to college, he chose Harvard. A serious musician, he was concerned that MIT may not meet those needs. The strength of the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble (FJE) convinced him otherwise, and he transferred after his freshman year. He recalls meeting with Fred Harris, Director of the MIT Wind and Jazz Ensembles, before transferring to learn about the jazz program and was “pleasantly surprised,” not only that the program could be tailored to his specific interests, but also “with the support that the administration has for artists and for musicians.”

At MIT, Parrish’s work has included music performance, large-scale media performance, and the fusion of technology and the humanities. Institute Professor John Harbison, who has been MIT faculty since 1969, says of his astonishing abilities as a jazz percussionist with the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, “Garrett stands out as the most advanced percussionist in the history of our programs.” Parrish has twice been an MIT Emerson Scholar, an elite group of students selected to receive professional level music training during their undergraduate careers. This past year, he studied with MIT alumnus and composer Jamshied Sharifi in New York, going beyond his primary instrument (jazz percussion) to strengthen his skills as an arranger and producer. He says, “Coming from a pure drumming background, it was an amazing opportunity to be able to study composition and arranging and to have support from the school to explore this completely other direction. It really opened my mind.”

In the Opera of the Future Group at the Media Lab, Garrett exemplified MIT’s “Mind Heart Hand” spirit. Tod Machover says that in each of his projects—from apps that allow audiences to experience opera from remote locations to improvisation systems that adapt to the physiological and emotional state of musicians—Garrett ensures “the musical, human and ethical value of each endeavor is at least as high as the technological achievement.”

This fusion of art, technology and ethics is at the heart of many of Parrish’s pursuits, including his work at Walt Disney Imagineering and his project DoneGood. Walt Disney Imagineering is the design firm owned by Disney, which designs all the theme parks.

Parrish worked in the Show Design and Production department, with the team who designs all the electronics and computer show control systems, lighting, and other components that control and enhance the guests’ experience. He describes the job as “very interdisciplinary and very complicated” and says, “I came out totally changed. All my assumptions had changed—all my ideas about how to build things, how to put things together, how to view art, and view technology.” He also found this level of collaboration—a skill that MIT likewise promotes—instructive:

“In a situation like that you can’t have ego. Because, you’re building a ride that parents are going to put their children on…. If you don’t know how to do something, you have to ask and get help to know how to do it. The show won’t go on if the computers don’t work, but you can’t see anything if the lights don’t work, and there’s no story if the writers aren’t there. So it forces you to be collaborative. I was prepared for it because MIT has that philosophy as well. In all the classes, you have to work together, or else you won’t be able to survive…. One reason why I respect MIT so much, and why I stayed here, is because of that institutional attitude of collaboration, of doing things together…. You don’t think of going to MIT to learn soft skills, but apart from all the technical information I know, learning how to approach problems and how to work with people is the most valuable thing I take away.”

DoneGood is a mobile application that allows people to search and buy products made ethically, and a browser extension, which tracks users spending habits. By redirecting users’ spending and tracking the revenue a company loses, DoneGood can use that information to give businesses a financial incentive to improve their practices. Parrish, who is a co-founder of the initiative, says, “There are so many unethical businesses and unethical practices and sweatshops and bad products out there. Campaigning against that type of stuff only works so well. You know you can hold up your signs, which is all great, but is that really going to change those behaviors? The only real thing that talks in the world is money. So, as much as I have my happy Disney optimism, there’s also a ruthless pragmatism too.” He adds, “Every dollar we spend is a vote, because you’re giving it to something that you support.”

Talking to Parrish, you quickly see what underlies all his work: “The simplest way to describe my life goal, is to use technology to help us better understand each other. I fundamentally believe that we have the tools currently to solve so many of the problems that we are facing. And I think the biggest issue that we face is how we deal with each other—how we understand, or don’t understand, or misinterpret or judge other people. So if we can fix the people problems, so many of the other problems just fix themselves. And that’s where I think that both art and technology have an incredibly important role.”

At MIT in September 2017, Parrish will present a new work he is writing, directing, and producing called Sparks of Hope. It is a multimedia storytelling event about the journey of humanity in technology through the ages, and into the future. Inspired by Disney Spectacular shows, with lights, projection, dancers and other special effects, Sparks of Hope involves several MIT groups and was supported by the MIT Council for the Arts. Parrish says this piece showcases the trajectory he intends to stay on in his professional life. With an offer from Disney to return, he says he is interested in several different positions and departments, “but the goal eventually is to work in entertainment and experience design, as both a creative and technical director.”

The Louis Sudler Prize for Excellence in the Arts is presented annually to a graduating senior who has demonstrated excellence or the highest standards of proficiency in music, theater, painting, sculpture, design, architecture or film. The prize was established in 1982 by Mr. Sudler, a performing artist and an arts patron from Chicago. An endowment fund provides a $2,500 award to the honoree.

Each nominee is contacted by the Council for the Arts at MIT and asked to provide material in support of the nomination; this usually takes the form of a rèsumé highlighting the artistic career of the individual, recordings of music, videos of acting and images of artwork.