For the first time in the instrument’s 150-year history, a group of 13 undergraduates composed a piece to be performed by the Cornell Chimes, a set of 21 bells housed in McGraw Tower.
The feat was born out of a collaboration between the Cornell Chimes and Music 3140: Instrumentation for Composers, a new music course that teaches students how to compose for various instruments of the classical orchestra.
Led by Prof. Eli Marshall, music, Instrumentation for Composers takes an active learning approach to music education by tasking each student with composing a one-minute piece for every instrument that they learn about. To guide students during this process, the class invites performers to workshop the pieces with the students.
In the composition of the piece for the Chimes, Cornell Chimesmasters collaborated with the students in their creative processes.
Since the Chimes are only two octaves high, composers are limited on what they can write, said Drake Eshleman ’20, a student in the course. However, through collaboration with the Chimesmasters, students were able to learn more of the body movements and physical aspects of playing the chimes.
While the process was difficult on both ends, Billie Sun ’19, head Chimesmaster, said the most rewarding part was getting to work with people of new perspectives.
“These [students] were coming at it from a music theory background,” Sun said. “They took a lot of things into account that Chimesmasters themselves might not.”
Milo Reynolds-Dominguez ’20, another student in the class, said he found the collaboration rewarding.
“The class is the perfect opportunity to have a chance to work with professional instrumentalists and see them play your compositions right in front of you,” he said.
The culmination of the collaboration was the premiere of the students’ piece on Oct. 17 at 6 p.m. on the Chimes, with an estimated tens of thousands of students and faculty members within earshot of the performance, according to Marshall. The piece was performed a final time on Oct. 18 at 6 p.m.
Sun was grateful that the collaboration allowed her to break out of the Cornell Chimes “bubble” and interact with other students.
“Something that really struck me was how eager and passionate all of the students in the class were,” she said. “You could tell it wasn’t just something they were taking for a grade. I’m sure that reflects something in the course itself.”
Both Reynolds-Dominguez and Eshleman appreciated the historical significance of their compositions.
“It is an honor to be able to have a piece played for the whole campus, but I think it more feels like I’m deeply connected to the larger musical culture on campus,” Eshleman told The Sun.
“It was the Chimes’ 150th anniversary,” Reynolds-Dominguez added. “We always talk about the longevity of our compositions and the historical significance of [the chimes]. I feel like in our own little Cornell bubble, this is like being a part of that history.”
Both head Chimesmaster Sun and students Eshleman and Reynolds-Dominguez hope to continue collaborating.
“It’d be mutually beneficial for all the parties involved,” Sun said.