College of Arts and Architecture mourns the loss of music professor Mark Ballora

Stephanie Swindle Thomas
July 19, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mark Ballora, a devoted and dynamic professor of music technology in the Penn State School of Music, affiliate faculty in the School of Theatre, and newly appointed director of the Arts & Design Research Incubator, unexpectedly died Thursday, July 18. He was 57 years old.

Ballora was a leader in the field of sonification. His projects translated a wide variety of datasets into immersive soundscapes for research and educational purposes, including cardiac rhythms, computer network access data, and cosmic microwave background radiation. Ballora’s work was featured in numerous publications including Science, The Huffington Post, The Conversation, and Electronic Musician. He recently shared his research with the community at the Penn State Art of Discovery Booth during Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts on Saturday, July 13. As a faculty member, he and School of Theatre professor Curtis Craig started a minor in music composition and technology together, which then became an area of study for students wanting to combine their passions for music and theatre.

Growing up in Marin County, California, near San Francisco, he cited his early influences as “Muir Woods, the anti-Vietnam movement, the moon landings, the hip and activist Glide Memorial church, Mad Magazine, 'Star Trek,' Beatles records, Tom Lehrer, and Grateful Dead concerts.” His interests in music and theatre led him to pursue a degree in theatre arts at UCLA. After then moving to New York City and taking a day-job working with computers on Wall Street, Ballora began composing original music. His growing interest in music resulted in his decision to enroll in NYU’s Department of Music, where he earned degrees in music technology and composition. After completing his doctorate in music technology at McGill University in Montreal, he joined the faculty at Penn State in 2000.

His book, "Digital Audio and Acoustics for the Creative Arts," was published by Oxford University Press in 2016 and was lauded as a fundamental resource on acoustics and recording technology. In 2017, Ballora was co-recipient of two interdisciplinary seed grants awarded by the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) and the Gulf Research Program to conduct research with marine biologists to create sonifications of ocean-related data. He also had the opportunity to collaborate with Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart on Hart's albums "Superorganism" and "Mysterium Tremendum," as well as "Rhythms of the Universe," a film collaboration with Nobel Prize-recipient and cosmologist George Smoot, turning music into data. 

“Professor Ballora led the way for collaborations that exploded the boundaries between art and science. He helped many understand that artists bring unique perspectives to research questions. His kind and fun spirit enhanced his intellectual curiosity; his passing leaves a hole in many of our hearts,” said College of Arts and Architecture Dean Barbara Korner.

Although he will always be remembered internationally for his research, he locally will be remembered as a loving husband and father. His wife, Agatha Wang, teaches flute and piano in State College and is the director of the Nittany Valley Symphony Youth Flute Choir. An avid baseball fan, Ballora served as the announcer for his son Ian’s Little League Baseball team and spent time outside of the office attending State College Spikes and Pittsburgh Pirates games with his friends and family. He is also survived by his brother, Greg, and their parents. A cheerful presence across the college, Ballora’s sense of humor, rubber chickens, and participation in musical tributes for ailing and retiring colleagues will be greatly missed by those who knew him during his 19-year tenure at Penn State.

"Mark's joyful presence was felt by all in the School of Music. Faculty and graduate students considered themselves fortunate if Mark wrote them a song extolling their talents. He was a master of his craft in music technology and worked across the college on many collaborative projects. His research in sonification was recognized at an international level, including the Smithsonian and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute," added David Frego, director of the School of Music. "Looking ahead, we will work together to find opportunities to honor Mark's legacy and contribution to Penn State." 

Arrangements are still pending; information will be posted on the School of Music’s website when it becomes available.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 22, 2019