Story posted March 31, 2008
Bowdoin has raised the bar for music majors, with spectacular new rehearsal and performance spaces in Studzinski Recital Hall and Kanbar Auditorium and a new requirement this year that music majors complete a senior thesis before graduating.
For their part, students are rising to the occasion, with an unprecedented number choosing to compose original pieces of music as what Assistant Professor of Music Vineet Shende calls “a capstone at the end of their Bowdoin career.”
The variety of their work is stunning. Students from the Class of ‘08 composed pieces from a traditional Catholic Mass to an electronic composition, the latter of which has one movement based on the last gasp of a cymbal strike-recorded, amplified and embellished with live instrumentation.
Four of their compositions were performed by professional musicians hired by the music department. A concerto for full orchestra was performed by the Bowdoin Orchestra. Collaborating with working musicians “raises the level of what’s possible,” Shende added. “The students appreciated the chance to work with professional musicians and to get their feedback as they began rehearsals.”
Here, in their own words, these advanced composition students shared their thoughts on their music and the creative process. Each composition is available as an MP3 download.
“The words I took from poetry by Federico Lorca. The choir will be singing an English translation of his poetry in the first and last movements; soloists will sing from the Spanish text in the middle two. I am enamored with the sound of a chamber choir. It is such a different perspective when you’re singing in the choir and when you’re composing for it.
I come to every rehearsal. The chamber director needs to have everything shot towards her, so she’ll field questions from the choir. She has her own interpretation of what I’ve written. There’s this giant gap of interpretation between what the composer writes and the choir sings. It’s the director’s interpretation. That has been a huge learning experience for me.
It is absolutely awesome hearing my choir sing my music. Sometimes after a rehearsal, someone will tell me, ‘I really like that part. I’ve been singing it in the shower.’ That’s satisfying.”
Love, Stars, and the Moon - preface [mp3]
Love Stars and the Moon pt. I [mp3]
Love, Stars, and the Moon pt. II [mp3]
Love, Stars and the Moon pt. III [mp3]
Love Stars and the Moon pt. IV [mp3]
“Part of the fun and challenge has been writing for that many parts. I chose to do it because writing for an orchestra is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I thought about writing a paper, but it’s cool to be able to share my honors project with my friends and family. In the end, I’ll have this piece and this performance; it’s a really exciting climax.
I started last year in a summer fellowship, so I’ve been at it almost an entire calendar year. You get better at composing as you go along, and I had to revise it after taking an orchestration class.
The piece has three movements, but only the first movement will be performed, because the orchestra wouldn’t be able to rehearse the whole thing. It would have been really lovely to hear it all performed, but that was the tradeoff writing for a full orchestra.”
Listen to: Concerto for Orchestra [mp3]
“I wanted to write something that synthesized a lot of the music that I find interesting and appealing. The first movement is Baroque, like Bach, but more romantic. The second is a sonata, but more romantic. Then it sort of gets violent from there. The final movement is a big fugue, a dramatic finale. The problem is, I had a lot of different ideas and tried to fit them all together in a coherent way.
My piece is very difficult to play. I’m not a good enough pianist to learn it in time, but a professional can. I don’t sit at a piano when I write; that distracts me. I compose mostly in my head, then write using “Finale,” a music notation program that plays it back to you in a synthesized form. Sometimes you make a mistake typing it in and it you end up saying, ‘That sounds pretty cool.’
I hope the audience ends up liking it, that it affects them emotionally. I hope they don’t get bored.”
“When I came to Bowdoin, I couldn’t read music. I played guitar in a rock band and sang in a choir. I listened to punk rock. I learned to read music in Music Theory 101, but I didn’t do particularly well in that class. I thought I’d be a biology major, but I didn’t like the labs that much. Now I’m an economics/music major. The class that made me want to be a music major was Prof. Shende’s electronic music class in sophomore year. I like sounds, and I like weird sounds.
My project is a little strange, but the department has been very supportive and receptive. I’d start thinking I should reign myself in a little, and they said, ‘No, you’re just starting to get somewhere.’
In my music, the live performers interact with the electronic portion, which is all sampled music. I don’t use a synthesizer at all. I don’t sample other people’s music; I sample parts of instruments, and they become the focus of that movement. In “Piano Drone,” I played a low F, sampled that and analyzed that pitch. Every pitch is made up of a variety of pitches, and I modeled the instrumental part on that.
Samples allow you to hear things you wouldn’t hear otherwise. In “Cymbal Drone.” I struck a cymbal once and recording it as it faded. I could barely hear it, but the microphone still could. I amplified that sound and based the whole movement on it. With the saxophone, I’m working with the key clicks without blowing through it. I opened the lid of the piano, took the two sticks that hold open the lid and hit them together to make a sound. I use electronics to rethink what a piano is capable of doing.
My main goal was to create something that was originally mine as much as possible. I hope it’s a playful piece. It’s a somewhat difficult piece to listen to. It’s loud and in your face, and the rhythms are a little weird. I listen to it and cringe a little.”
Listen to: Falling in Love [mp3]
The text of the Credo is very long, and I didn’t have time to set that one. I composed a Credo for organ. The organ is playing a melody that a singer might chant. I tried to get the message of the Credo across in the music. I chose words and phrases I thought were the most important and created a word painting. ‘Christ descended from heaven, suffered death, was buried and on the third day rose again. His kingdom will have no end.’ I tried to make the music fit the text; it starts off somber, then becomes staccato, bright and happy.
I started composing in September, and by December and January, I had developed as a composer. I went back to the earlier pieces and asked, ‘Does this still fit? Can I do it better?’ I hope I made it a unified piece. I hope people can enjoy it either a spiritual piece or as a piece of music. I guess if you ask anyone, we all just want the audience to like it.”
Listen to: Sonorum Septum Misa - Kyrie Agnus Dei [mp3]
Sometimes after a rehearsal, someone will tell me, 'I really like that part. I've been singing it in the shower.' That's satisfying.
— Jeffrey Friedlander 08