The Oberlin Stories Project

On Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble

Avery Waite ’10

“In this new music, I heard nothing, only an ugly idiom that my ear could not, would not grasp... Then something happened that I’ll never forget.”

A violinist plays at the center of a tightly positioned ensemble

My earliest memories are of the Goldberg Variations. In fact, I was raised on Bach. Car trips would start with Glenn Gould, go to the Cello Suites, then a little of the Passions, and finally everything would be rounded off nicely with the B minor Mass. As I grew older, I began to appreciate the other greats - Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn and others.

I was never introduced to modern music as a child, or even as a young adult, so it was a quite a shock when I arrived at Oberlin. I can remember my first Contemporary Music Ensemble concert freshman year; I think I left after the first piece. I remember the feeling of being completely outraged, offended, but mostly just depressed. It made me think about beauty, the kind of beauty that moves, hurts and changes us. In this new music, I heard nothing, only an ugly idiom that my ear could not, would not grasp. I continued to attend every CME concert, but nothing changed - until late last year.

It was a spring evening CME concert in Warner; I wasn’t particularly thrilled to be there, in fact I was only there to support my friends who were on stage. I was already reading the program notes before the downbeat of the first piece.

Then something happened that I’ll never forget. It was like a photograph of a landscape coming into focus. What was once a hideous blur of dark shapes suddenly had definition and meaning. My ears, eyes and heart opened to the language and I began to understand for the first time. What I realized was this: human feeling doesn’t change, just its expression. Bach, Schumann, Shostakovitch, they’re all expressing the same things about being human; pain is pain, joy is joy, and love, well, love will never change.

After that concert, I began to get involved in new music at Oberlin. I began attending every modern music concert, I started saying yes to student composers, I even began learning contemporary solo cello works to bring to my lessons. Looking back, all it took was that one moment of revelation. But really, it wouldn’t have happened without going through the long, frustrating and confusing process of listening and learning. And still, my journey is far from over.