November 12, 2008

Contrapunkt! Showcases Students' Musical Chops

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The concerts that college students go to these days aren’t in classical music halls. Kanye West and Coldplay never perform with music stands, a conductor in black tie or formal seating; concerts take place in big outdoor stadiums and small bar venues. College kids assume that concerts involve a thumping bass, crowd surfing, intoxicated people — you know the story. On Monday, however, a group of Cornell’s undergraduate composers presented Contrapunkt! — a “counterpoint” to the usual collegiate concert.
The concert defied two concert traditions. It wasn’t your parent’s classical performance of romantic Debussy or soundtrack-worthy Tchaikovsky concertos; Cornell’s undergraduate composers were more interested in breaking the historic grammar of western music.
“Signal,” an electronic composition by Sarah Brown ’09, was arguably the most radical piece in the concert, at least to the untrained ear. Brown, in partnership with her computer and its algorithms, functioned as the conductor, D.J. and composer. Her piece began with computer and electronic sounds; the beeping your computer makes when there’s an error, the start-up noise of a Mac and the white noise of a TV. À la musical “Stomp,” these seemingly non-musical noises began to pick up rhythm and cadence of their own, until they became almost unrecognizable as individual noises. The piece grew in volume and momentum — robot music, if robots made music — and suddenly, in the cacophony of buzzes and chirps, could be heard the call of whales. Or was it an angelic chorus singing in operatic harmony?
The ability to transform mathematical programming into what was undeniably music required a strange mixture of pre-programming and improvisation. Brown used “Little Sound Disk Jockey,” a sequencer that is operated by a Game Boy console, which generated many of the sounds in Brown’s piece.
Julia Adolphe ’10 — who founded Conrapunkt! as a venue for undergraduate composers with Xander Snyder ’09 last fall and serves as one of the event’s co-presidents — presented two compositions at Monday’s concert: “If Only She” and “He Disappeared into Complete Silence.” Other than the contribution from Maurice Chammah ‘10 (also a Sun columnist), Adolphe’s works were notably the only ones with vocals. “He Disappeared into Complete Silence” was inspired by a series of artworks depicting a leper colony in New Orleans; Adolphe composed her own titles to each of these frames — titles which became the libretto for her work. Adolphe’s piece described the leper colony through sounds and noises that might be found there, rather than just musical composition. The use of a clapper and a bell signaled the coming of the leper, while the plaintive narration of soprano Erin Winker, Ithaca College ’09, recalled the crying of a mother.
“An Evening of Jazz,” the piece by Liza Sobel ’12, provoked questions about traditional mediums and performance spaces. She started off with the “quirky concept” of having a string quartet play jazz. Hearing the rhythms of jazz from the sound of classical instruments was a bizarre experience; visually it also seemed surreal. While the composers of Contrapunkt! challenged traditional classical composition, they seemed to stay with historic performance types. What’s left of jazz after you take out swinging, spirited improv performance, fueled by whiskey and sex appeal?
Contrapunkt! also presented more classical works, namely Vivian Li’s ’09 self-performed piano solo, “Reflection,” and Dara Taylor’s “For Flute and Piano”; Li’s composition was more accessible for audience members without an extensive background in music theory. Inspired by Bartok’s “Mikrokosmos,” “Reflection” gently suggested a fragmented relationship between two melodies. A comparison for the layman’s understanding might be Beethoven’s famous “Moonlight Sonata” — a simple melody of three notes is slowly varied in different keys throughout the first movement.
The concert also concluded with a four-movement chamber concerto by Xander Snyder, with 15 players. The program notes suggests that it’s a new type of canon form, using a smaller group of players and exploiting the distinct voices of these instruments. The charismatic performance of the entire group — as well Snyder’s performance as conductor — produced a sound as rich and complex as a full orchestra. The audience, which included many of the performers’ peers and professors, rose to their feet as they applauded Snyder’s work.
Contrapunkt! offered a “counterpoint” to two generations of musical tradition. The music sounded rebellious and foreign, even to untrained ears; it was at times emotive — like Snyder’s second movement, with all its crescendos and aggressive percussion — and shocking at others — for example, Sarah Brown’s game console-cum-instrument disc jockeying. However, the works themselves were at times inaccessible to the untrained ear.
When Maurice Chammah announced to the crowd, “We’re playing a pop song!” before his set, there was a general sigh of laughter and relief.
Contrapunkt! has broken away from musical tradition; now we’re waiting to see a break from traditional performances as well.