Few undergrad composers have their work heard by a live audience of more than 20,000 people, but 13 students in a new music composition class can jot that down on their resumes.
The students of Eli Marshall, lecturer in the Department of Music, spent the first two months of the semester composing music for eight solo instruments – from percussion to voice to clarinet to piano – before branching out to a string orchestra of 20 chamber music pieces. But the first piece they composed this semester was for the Cornell Chimes. Students watched their pieces performed Oct. 17-18 in two chimes concerts.
“One idea is that, having worked with a unique icon such as the Chimes, the students may dream up their own projects during their final semesters and years here, applying these newly-wrought collaborative skills, making more music, and using composition to bridge two pillars of our department: critical performance and sonic scholarship,” Marshall said.
Although student and alumni chimemasters have written pieces for the chimes, this is the first time that Jennifer Lory-Moran ’96, MAT ’97, chimes adviser for the past 18 years, can remember the chimes being a music composition class assignment.
“I’m so thrilled that Dr. Marshall saw the opportunity to bring his students across the Arts Quad to take advantage of this quintessentially Cornell instrument,” she said. “Every student needed to learn about a completely new instrument with a very unique set of characteristics for this assignment.”
Lory-Moran wrote guidelines for the students on arranging for the chimes. After the students had written their compositions, they had a workshop with chimesmasters, who gave the students feedback, and the students revised their final compositions.
“Primarily I have written for voice, piano or electronic music, so the mechanics of the chimes made this challenging,” said Anna Colette Bores ’20, a music major who plans to become a composer. The chimesmasters “are usually standing on their right foot and playing with their hands and their left foot, so we had to figure out whether they would be using their hands or their foot for a note.”
Other challenges included the limited range of notes and the fact that the chimes continue to reverberate after they are played.
The class, Instrumentation for Composers, made up of mostly junior and senior music majors, focuses on the process of writing for different instruments and on the collaborative experience of working with musicians during composition. Marshall recruited nine colleagues on the music faculty to work with the students and play their pieces.
Where contemporary composition is commonly taught as a highly specialized, even marginal, pursuit, Marshall emphasizes a broader approach. “Through encouraging individual tastes and offering musical tools, students explore the building blocks of sound, which they can leverage in any musical direction – in research, or creations for orchestra, songwriting, jazz, electroacoustic, or multimedia installation,” he said.
“Even with our point of departure – notation and so-called classical instruments – it’s not just getting to know the instrument but getting to know professional players, the vocabulary, the technology, the culture of the instruments,” Marshall said.
Faculty musicians included Lucy Fitz Gibbon, Lenora Schneller, John Haines-Eitzen, Paul Merrill, Juliana May Pepinsky, A. Elizabeth Shuhan, Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, Michael Sparhuber and Henry Hao-an Cheng.
“I was really surprised to have these fantastic musicians coming in and reading our one-minute instrumentation projects,” said Jeremy Baxter ’20.
Cornell chimesmasters Billie Sun ’19 and Emma Jacob ’20 played five of the student compositions during the 6 p.m. chimes concert Oct. 18. Kevin Cook ‘21 joined them Oct. 17.
“A lot of the chimes originals [94 pieces written by chimesmasters] are written in a way that takes into account the choreography involved,” Sun said. “But after we workshopped with this class, the finished products were all doable.”
Yihao Chan ’19 rearranged a famous folk song from his hometown of Sichuan Province in China, “Kangding Love Song,” for the chimes.
Chan said collaborating with the music faculty was the most rewarding part of the class. “It is very important to get feedback from professional performers,” he said.
Kathy Hovis is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.