Contrapunkt concert showcases student composers

As Patrick Braga ’17 stood waiting to perform at an outdoor concert last summer, he noticed a homeless woman talking to herself, so he started listening and taking notes.

“I thought about how we decide what constitutes acceptable text to set to music,” said Braga, a double major in music and urban and regional studies. “In spite of efforts to resolve homelessness, this is still a voice that hasn’t been amplified.”

When he got some time to sit down and compose, Braga wrote “The Woman at Copley Square, Sunday 26 July,” one of 10 pieces by six undergraduates that was showcased at an Oct. 19 concert by Contrapunkt, Cornell’s group for undergraduate student composers. Braga is the group’s president.

The concert included music from various genres from opera to electronic to classical using diverse instruments and voices. Contrapunkt includes a few music majors, but most members are other majors from across campus who love composing.

Music major Martin Mahoney ’17, vice president of Contrapunkt, said that as a composer, he has a bit of music running through his head most of the time.

“The inspiration for an art song might take a couple of weeks of ‘marinating’ time,” he said. “Composers need to give ideas time to grow passively. Then the song will just come to you, and you know that it’s time to write.”

Mahoney showcased two pieces during the Oct. 19 show, one a choral piece using the poem “The Unseen” by Sarah Teasdale and the other an art song based on letters from South Pole explorer Capt. Robert Falcon Scott to his wife. Scott died during a 1910-13 expedition.

“Some excerpts show his gritty stoicism, like when it was 40 degrees below zero,” Mahoney said. “But at other times he’s talking about his family, so his tone jumps back and forth,” as does the music Mahoney has composed for the piece, he said.

The process of composition is different for every musician, Braga and Mahoney said. Braga, an accomplished pianist, often starts at the keyboard with an idea, then creates an entire piece using techniques he’s learned in class, such as serialism, which helped him create a 12-tone piece for the concert, where all 12 notes of the chromatic scale have to be used before one can be repeated.

Other times, he’ll find a piece of music he loves and pattern a piece after that.

Mahoney uses his voice for composing, so he’ll hear a melody he loves, come up with the harmonies that will surround it and improvise for a couple of hours, singing different parts of the piece.

They both say being a composer requires innate talent, but is mostly a skill that can be learned with lots of hard work and practice.

“The more music theory and music history you study, the more you know what works and what doesn’t,” Braga said. “You know how to build off of ideas, and you learn how to contribute something of your own.”

Mahoney likens composing to learning to write.

“It’s sad that so few people write music when nearly everyone can do something – and something pretty good,” he said. “It’s a skill that’s acquired primarily by doing it over and over and over.”

The benefits of a club like Contrapunkt, they say, is the mentorship that upperclass students can offer to new composers.

“More experienced members can offer advice like ‘Oh, I ran into that problem with a piece last year, try this’ or ‘I love what you’re doing there. It sounds a little like this composer.’“

The group meets every other week to share their work or hear from doctoral composition students or visiting musicians. 

This piece also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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