Division of Contemporary Music Presents First-Year Composers

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

The Division of Contemporary Music, which encompasses the Composition and TIMARA departments, has succeeded in enrolling a cohort of exceptional first-year students. This was made clear Saturday afternoon, when students performed a recital in Fairchild Chapel. Audience members arrived in twos and threes, carefully sidestepping the many cellos leaning against the wall. By 3 p.m., when the concert began, the room was packed. Framed with stained-glass windows, the chapel made every quiet sound reverberate through the small space.

Not one of the composers stayed within the realm of the safe and familiar. Rather, they pushed the envelope, whether in terms of style, instrumentation or quality of sound.

Some compositions utilized traditional instruments in inventive ways, combining them with electronics and recordings to add another dimension to the music. This was encapsulated in the first composition of the afternoon, a piece by double-degree first-year Guillermo Irizzary Lambright. In this piece, Lambright fused a live string quartet with electronic sounds piping through speakers. The music was punctuated by short bursts of Spanish and what sounded like the cries of domesticated animals. As the music sped and slowed, the blending of sounds from very different media created a surprisingly cohesive soundscape. Another composition, by Conservatory first-year Elie McAfee-Hahn, also used live instrumentation in an unexpected way. This piece was written for flute, alto saxophone, French horn and violin. The performers’ breath was audible while they played, making the audience acutely aware of how air moved through the instruments. Conservatory first-year Aliya Ultan’s composition called for 11 cellos onstage, showcasing the versatility of the instrument as well as its ability to blend with and lift the human voice.

Other composers chose to forgo physical instruments entirely, presenting stereo fixed-media pieces that were played from two large speakers on stage. In one such piece, Conservatory first-year Tori Ervin waited for the chapel to fall completely silent before beginning the piece with a single quiet note. As it faded, the next one sounded. Although the piece increased in speed and intensity, it never reached a frantic pace. Every note seemed clear, intentional and controlled.

This was followed by a piece by Conservatory first-year Hao Zou, which at first seemed to create the atmosphere of a nightclub on a rainy night. However, it soon moved into the realm of unfamiliar soundscapes as unintelligible words combined with melodies. It then entered sequences filled with choral music, a single string instrument and many more components before returning to the first, familiar sounds. Zou’s piece was a thrilling, fast-paced musical journey.

Double-degree first-year Rania Adamczyk’s piece used technology in another unexpected way. The intrigue of the piece stemmed from its reliance on voices that faded in and out of focus. Melodies were added on top of the voices, and sometimes the voices faded out entirely, leaving only the musical notes reverberating through the chapel. However, the words soon returned, clearly laden with emotion. Some of the few clearly audible phrases were “I’m so sorry” and “I don’t know what this was going to become, and I can’t go back.” The notes seemed to be cast as the villain in this narrative as one strained to hear the speaker’s story. The final stereo fixed-media composition immediately jolted the listener to full attention. Conservatory first-year Ko Takasugi-Czernowin’s piece began loudly with a clamor of industrial sounds colliding. Soon, the sound of water began to thread through the piece. As the composition progressed, the industrial sounds became tangential to the sound of the water itself. The piece played with this curious relationship until both faded into silence.

Some pieces were innovative not because of the use of technology or unorthodox instrumentation but because of how the composers took traditional techniques and made them new. A soprano and piano duet by Conservatory first-year Oliver Kwapis consisted of three surrealist poems set to music. It was enjoyable to hear these unusual poems being performed this way, since so much of the work that is traditionally adapted for voice is much more lyrical and often romantic or religious. Another piano composition, this time by College senior Vikram Shankar, focused on variations. To the listener, it seemed to be an exercise in reinterpretation that remained dynamic and cohesive throughout the piece.

The breadth of instrumentation and style of composition showcased at this concert were breathtaking, especially when one considers that the composers were mostly first-year students. They are already challenging what is possible in terms of music and performance. Mark your calendar for the next recital showcasing any of these talented composers.