Student Composers Tap Into Myriad Inspirations

Ivan Aidun

Emotions ran high at the Student Composers Concert in Stull Recital Hall Tuesday night. 12 Composition and TIMARA students presented original pieces that ran the gamut of sound and structure. Traditional pairings like piano and voice and cello duets were juxtaposed in unconventional arrangements such as massive fixed media soundscapes incorporating visual stimuli and a rhythmic transcription of a Dadaist poem. The pieces varied widely in their subject matter as well, some addressing abstract concepts like constraint or degradation, others paying stunning tribute to national and personal tragedy.

One piece, Songs for Marimba Trio by first-year Seare Farhat, scored for a soprano, flute and marimba ensemble, was written to speak “to alienation and a degrading transformation of the spirit through commodification in society,” the composer wrote in the program notes.

“In the piece itself, I try and manipulate [the variety of timbres in the ensemble], make things lyricism versus the staccato feeling in both [the flute and the voice],” Farhat told the Review. The text for the piece is drawn from two poems by Jorge Javier Romero, and Farhat noted in the program that “following the Afghan storytelling tradition in chamber music, the form of the piece is broken into four movements of different degrees of stress,” although only three movements were presented in concert.

“A lot of what goes into TIMARA is really thought out, … and these gestures that kind of glide through the whole thing,” Farhat said of the relationship between pieces for traditional classical instruments and the fixed media pieces produced by the TIMARA students. He pointed to another piece on the program, Landscape No. 1 by first-year Will Bertrand as exemplifying a “complete contrast to [his] more improvisational and completely acoustic instrumentation.”

A piece titled 2,5,6 by first-year Liam Kaplan contrasted Farhat’s improvisational style. Scored for cello and piano, 2,5,6 used only three musical intervals to construct its melody and harmony.

2,5,6 was conceived in composition class. “[We] had to use only three intervals horizontally and vertically, which at first seemed very [restrictive]. I spent a lot of time choosing which intervals I could use to give me maximum freedom,” Kaplan said. The pieces’ title is a reference to these three intervals — a second, a fifth and a sixth. The piece itself revolves around the idea of expression within restriction.

“I kind of was able to create a tiny musical language using this limited vocabulary and I just wanted to express as much as I could within that very limited space,” Kaplan said. “My goal was that when you listened to the piece you would have no idea that it came from this [extremely] mathematical assignment.”

Kaplan’s and Farhat’s works bordered a piece for fixed media, Pulse by sophomore Helen Hé. She characterized its creation as her personal reflection on the Orlando shooting in June.

“[It was] a hate crime against queer people of color and specifically queer Latinos,” Hé said. “As an artist, as a queer person of color, I felt like I should make something for that.”

Many of the sounds Hé incorporated into her music hold particular symbolic significance, such as the heartbreakingly insistent chirps and melodies of cell phone ring tones.

“I read somewhere, just after the incident when the first responders were there, they were haunted by the sounds of the cell phones of the victims around the room,” she said. The piece is wrenching and powerful, also featuring the sound of a heart monitor, which she used “as a transition, also the ending, because the name of the club is called Pulse, and then my piece is also called Pulse. … It just signifies some kind of life and that their lives will continue.” The piece ends with 49 beeps of the heart monitor “to commemorate the 49 lives.”

Hé’s was not the only piece commemorating tragedy. Also on the program was Whale (in memory of the victims of Sewol-ho) by junior Soomin Kim, which paid tribute to the victims of the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry in South Korea that killed 304 people, 250 of whom were high school students. First-year Kari Watson noted in the program that her piece I Fear No Fate, based on a stanza of e.e. cummings’ “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]” was written in honor of the second anniversary of her twin sister Jesi’s passing.

“When you’re working with the living, breathing person of the music, you can also work together to shape it into something beautiful that’s personal for just you,” said Conservatory junior Kelsey Burnham, who performed in Farhat’s piece. “All of the music that we make here at Oberlin for that purpose is just incredible.”

“So often in the classical tradition … we get blinded,” Burnham said of the engagement of new music with the world. “We have blinders on while we’re playing, and we’re doing it for music’s sake, but we forget about how music can save people. … If you write something as beautiful as Helen [Hé] and you really dedicate it to something, it means something. People don’t realize that sometimes.”