Concerto highlights individual voice and the sound of community

When Elizabeth Ogonek, assistant professor in the Department of Music in the College of Arts and Sciences, was commissioned by her colleague and collaborator Xak Bjerken, professor of music, to compose a concerto for a new album, she was given an incredible amount of freedom to indulge her most idiosyncratic interests.

“Normally when you’re asked to write a piece, there are very specific things that are entangled in that commission. You have to write for specific instrumentation, it has to be specific duration, any number of things,” Ogonek said. “This was a dream project in a lot of ways because the only limitations Xak gave was to write a piece to play with an ensemble.”

Ogonek’s composition, “where are we now,” which combines voice, piano and percussion, is one of three works commissioned by Bjerken and featured on “The Oberlin Concertos,” released Sept. 17 on compact disc, digital download and streaming services Spotify and Apple Music via Oberlin Music.

“Each of the three composers on the disc approach the role of the piano in such different ways – sometimes stentorian, but more often conversational, interwoven in a way that highlights the duality of the percussive and vocal abilities of the piano,” said Bjerken, who, as pianist, performed the pieces with Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble and conductor Timothy Weiss.

“This project brought together such wonderful composers, and the creative back and forth and performances of these magnificent pieces have been a highlight of my life,” he added. “Elizabeth’s instrumental choices were the most radical of the three, and the result is bursting with imagination and intimate drama.”

Given so much creative latitude, Ogonek says that her first impulse was a little bizarre.

Having just come off a three-year residency at the Chicago Symphony, for which she’d written a series of large ensemble pieces, Ogonek wanted to continue in that vein while exploring her fascination with percussion. Her initial idea was to write a concerto for a single piano and eight percussionists.

“Everyone who heard this was like, ‘that’s a horrible idea. You should never do that.’ But it totally unleashed the incredibly impractical side of me, which has, fortunately or unfortunately, become a thing,” said Ogonek, who joined Cornell’s faculty this year after teaching at Oberlin Conservatory since 2015.

Ogonek modified that plan to incorporate her love of early vocal music from the Medieval and Renaissance eras, particularly men’s voices.

“I had really fallen in love with that sound and the transparency of harmony and the balance of how harmony often comes across in that sort of ensemble,” Ogonek said. “I thought, well, what happens if I did something very strange, something that wasn’t a traditional concerto where the soloist is doing all this insane virtuosic stuff with the backing ensemble. What if instead I had a series of six voices, and a percussion quartet, and then the solo piano.”

The resulting 28-minute piece is as lyrically and harmonically focused as Ogonek’s previous work, while also exploring new areas of timbral color and distortion. The text for the composition was provided by Welsh librettist and music critic Paul Griffiths, who – as part of an ongoing project – employed a constrained writing technique that only uses words spoken by Ophelia in “Hamlet.”

“It’s a very abstract text. I told him that I was interested in the juxtaposition of the self versus the community versus something in between,” Ogonek said. “So the text highlights the entire ensemble, versus a select few of the ensemble, versus the soloist. It’s this idea of collective memory versus individual memory. It was really interesting to work with as a composer, because there are certain musical elements that are already built into the text.”

“The Oberlin Concertos” is the fourth album Ogonek has contributed to, and she is currently at work on a variety of compositions, from piano concertos to orchestra pieces. Last month, she and Bjerken curated the Resounds Festival, which featured their yearlong project, The Design and Performance CoLab for New Acoustic Instruments.

The album also includes works composed by Jesse Jones, DMA ’13, and Grammy Award-winner Stephen Hartke, both of whom teach at Oberlin Conservatory.

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Gillian Smith