Chimes peal out undergrad melodies

It’s not typical for an undergrad composer to have their work heard by a live audience of upwards of 20,000 people, but 13 students in a new music composition class can jot that down on their resumes.

The students of Eli Marshall, a lecturer in the Department of Music, are spending the first two months of the semester composing music for eight solo instruments – ranging from percussion to voice to clarinet to piano — before branching out to larger forces (a string orchestra of 20) and longer formats (chamber music pieces). But the first piece they started this semester was for the Cornell Chimes. Students were able to watch and hear their pieces performed Oct. 17-18 in two special chimes concerts.

Although student and alumni chimemasters have written pieces for the chimes, this is the first time that Jennifer Lory-Moran '96, MAT ’97, chimes advisor for the past 18 years, can remember the chimes being the focus of 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.”

To help the students, Lory-Moran wrote guidelines on arranging for the chimes - including details about how the chimes are played. She and chimesmaster Billie Sun ’19 met with his class to give them a tour, demonstrate how the instrument is played and answer questions. After the students had written their compositions, they also had a "workshop" session with chimesmasters, who played through the pieces on the practice stand and gave the students feedback. The students then had a chance to make revisions before submitting 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.”

Billie Sun '19 plays the chimes while compositions watch
Other challenging factors included the limited range of notes and the fact that the chimes continue to reverberate after they are played.

“I write on an electronic program and I had it set to bells with a lot of ring, so I could hear the ring,” said Bores, who titled her chimes piece “Memory.” “I knew that if you made a piece that was really fast, it would just be ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing.”

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 was able to recruit nine colleagues — other professional musicians 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 wider approach which may signal a different educational trend. "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, adding that sometimes the students meet the musicians before they perform their pieces and sometimes they meet at the performance. “That’s the way it is sometimes in real professional situations. Either way, they are collaborating with the musicians in a very authentic way.”

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.

“It's wonderful to get the performance-area faculty involved with students who are not necessarily performing their instrument; and, likewise, to showcase their profound knowledge in a wider field,” Marshall said.

“I was really surprised to have these fantastic musicians coming in and reading our one-minute instrumentation projects,” said Jeremy Baxter ’20.

Cornell chimesmasters 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 on 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 of the challenges of working with student composers unfamiliar with the chimes “But, after we workshopped with this class, the finished products were all doable.”

“It’s great when they are also composed in a way that’s fun to play,” Jacob said, as the chimes rang the 15-minute bell in the background, taking her off guard. “It scares me every time,” she said with a laugh.

Yihao Chan ’19, rearranged a famous folk song from his hometown of Sichuan Province in China, “Kangding Love Song,” for the chimes.

Chan said the collaborations with the music faculty were the most rewarding part of the class. “Since most of the time, I will be working in the domain that I am not familiar with (because I am not the player of the instrument I compose), it is very important to get feedback from professional performers,” he said.

“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.

Listen to their pieces below:

Composers are: Anna Bores, Rhys Moller, Yihao Chen, Jeremy Baxter, Ellie Cherry, Paul DeVito, Drake Eshleman, Caroline Jovel, Brady Kellum, Nina Knight, M. Jenae Lowe,Josepha Nechleba, Milo Reynolds-Dominguez and Joshua Sadinsky.

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 Students watch as their chimes compositions are played