April 29, 2009

Pop Music's Provocateurs

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Pop radio is brainwashing the ears of America. I don’t care how many times you’ve heard it; the music heard on the radio and advertised as mainstream is, more often than not, a dirtied reflection of only the tiniest, most insignificant percentile of actual musical output. Regardless of our inability to change the airwaves, however, it’s easy to stop plugging your ears with the synthesized plastic of music’s darkest dregs.
Click off the dial and get out of your musical comfort zone. Live music is one of life’s sublime pleasures, and its prevalence is easily ignored, especially on Cornell’s campus. Even if performances like Bernstein’s Mass or the Cornell Folk Song Society might not be your thing, musical innovation is a fairly frequent friend, often bubbling inside Lincoln Hall before bursting out towards the campus.
Coincidentally, the granddaddy of them all drops at Barnes Hall this Sunday. Contrapunkt! is a student organization that allows the musically mind-blowing to showcase their skills in a concert that is about to enter its fourth installment. The event itself started two years ago as the brainchild of Xander Snyder ’09 and Julia Adolphe ’10 — with Jonathan Bautista ’09 quickly following — as an outlet for students looking to perform their compositions in an undergraduate setting. Greg Weisbrod ’11 explained that, “There are a lot of mechanisms in place for grad students to have exposure … for undergrads in the music department … [the performance aspect] is much less defined.” As a result, “there was nothing really set in place as far as guaranteed performances each semester for undergrads,” said Snyder, and so the group was formed.
Contrapunkt! offers a variety of styles and voices, all found within the Cornell community — both in and outside of the music department. This year, the group is showcasing compositions from 10 composers: Julia Adolphe ’10, Garrett Biedermann ’12, Ryan Caira ’11, Carly Hodes ’10, Kris Kooi ’11, Vivian Li ’10, Marwan Sledge ’09, Xander Snyder, Liza Sobel ’12 and Greg Weisbrod ’11.
As important as their work, however, is the group’s refusal to be hemmed in by a system that may not always promote a public awareness of their work. As Bautista said, “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. I love the music that my peers put out, and I want to make sure that I can put the work of my friends out there.” While Cornell’s music scene may produce plenty of good indie rock and kinetic hip-hop, it also can fall into Pussycat-isms that distract away from a flourishing scene that lies outside of the radio realm.
While the pieces put out by Contrapunkt! always attract a crowd within Cornell’s music community, the quality of work these students put out deserves a wider recognition. This may begin to be easier, however, with a steadily increasing number of music majors combined with the University’s very recent addition of of a music minor, which became available this year.
Part of the message of Contrapunkt!, says Adolphe, is to “bring awareness to what’s going on in the music department [as a whole]. We are greatly indebted to the grad students … they write great work, along with visiting professors, but the attendance at those concerts is a lot smaller.” The concert’s audience is growing larger each semester with the seemingly undying support of the music department’s professors. “Not only are the professors very willing to help out,” says Snyder, “but they’ll give you their feedback from years of experience.”
The compositions performed this year will range from the classically inspired to the synesthestic, with Adolphe’s piece based on a set of nine drawings with nine corresponding poems. Snyder, in turn, has composed a five-minute, six-movement piece for piano, while Weisbrod has written two pieces for clarinet and piano. The concert offers work from all four undergraduate years, from engineers, college scholars and reluctant econ majors. As for the group’s makeup, Sobel is insistent that “Even if you’re not a composer, we’re always looking for musicians that are willing to perform or discuss music.” Contrapunkt! usually meets bi-monthly to hammer out the issues and sounds of the moment, ready to enlighten any musical mind.
This concert, aside from being free, is a rare opportunity to see live contemporary innovation unleashed. If only just for an hour, wrench free of your musical jail cell and head to Barnes Hall at 3:00. Music was never meant to stand still, and Contrapunkt! serves as a reminder that it never will.