Oberlin Blogs

So what did you do for Winter Term?

February 20, 2018

Rachel Gibson ’20

Each year, Oberlin reserves January for academic growth and exploration, known as Winter Term. Students can design their own individual project or participate in a group project. These projects can be done on campus, in another state, or even in a foreign country!

During my first year at Oberlin, I participated in a group project on campus, which was the Technology and Music in Related Arts (TIMARA) program’s Beginning Electronic Music class. I loved it so much that I applied to add TIMARA as a major, which would make me a double major!

This year, I was very productive and accomplished so much more than I thought I would. I designed my own project called “The Music of John Cage” and stayed on campus throughout the whole time. I love staying in Oberlin during Winter Term because it is so much quieter and calmer with over half the students gone. I also have more time to explore Oberlin in general, which is something I don’t have too much time to do during each semester. My project focused on the solo percussion music of John Cage, an American composer who is widely known for his use of chance in his compositions. I studied Cage and his works closely, and performed a solo recital during the first week of the spring semester.

My program included One4, Suite for Toy Piano, Child of Tree, cComposed Improvisation (for snare drum alone), and Dream. One4 is one of Cage’s “Number” pieces for solo percussion, which uses time brackets for the performer to follow. Suite for Toy Piano is a solo piece of several movements for, yes, a toy piano! cComposed Improvisation is a set of instructions that allows the performer to make their own piece using chance operations. I used a random list generator online for my interpretation. Child of Tree calls for the percussionist to use plant materials, including an amplified cactus (trust me, they sound amazing!). For this piece, Cage instructs the performer to use the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text, to determine how long each section of the piece was, which plants to use, how many plants to use in each section, etc. In a nutshell, you can flip three coins, write down the result, and consult the I Ching to get your answer. Lastly, Dream is actually a solo piano piece, but it works wonderfully on the vibraphone. I had so much fun learning and interpreting these pieces, and I think it is beautiful that they always sound different each time they are played.

A close-up of my cactus. It grew a tiny bit at the top! In the background, you will see all of my materials that I used for Child of Tree.
Stull Recital Hall with an audience
The audience was waiting for me. I felt so comfortable playing because I was surrounded by all my friends.

In addition to preparing for my recital, I also miraculously found time to practice orchestral excerpts and other music my percussion teacher gave me to do over Winter Term. Furthermore, I worked on and am currently still working on interpreting the score to Jonathan Harvey’s Bird Concerto and Pianosong, which Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble is performing in April. Another classmate and I are doing the live electronics for this piece and following the score, which is an amazing opportunity. Every instrument in the ensemble will be amplified, and our job is to process the sound and diffuse it among several speakers in the concert hall. Oberlin will be having a guest pianist play the solo piano part, and they also play a synthesizer and a sampler.

Bird Concerto and Pianosong Score
This is going to be such an adventure.

Lastly, I submitted a paper to a conference called New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME). I have been working with theremin, a program called Max/MSP, and a MIDI pedalboard. This paper documents my work, and if the committee picks me, I will be able to showcase my work at the conference over the summer. My fingers are crossed! I was also able to find the time to record my own compositions so I could use the videos in my portfolio for my TIMARA application. I wrote a violin and fixed media piece over winter break, and it was wonderful to see it come to life (thanks to Jonathan Fenwick, a second-year violinist).

Check out my work:

Overall, I cannot believe how much work I was able to do over just four weeks in January. I learned so much, and I can definitely say that I grew academically and personally.


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