Student Composers Get a Formalist Education

March 12, 2015

Daniel Hautzinger

Student composers worked with members of the Formalist Quartet
Student composers worked with members of the Formalist Quartet, who performed the students’ winter-term compositions in early February.
Photo credit: Josie Davis '14

It’s not often that an undergraduate composer gets to hear his work performed by professional musicians, but during the first week of February, 10 Oberlin students did exactly that.

During a three-day residency, the talented and adventurous Formalist Quartet recorded string quartets that had been written by the students over the previous month. The Los Angeles-based ensemble also presented talks about contemporary composers and performed its own repertoire.

The visit was the culmination of a winter-term project in which the students, selected through a competitive process, composed and refined their pieces through studio classes and lessons with composition professor Lewis Nielson.

“This is a great opportunity for the students to learn what it’s like to work with a string quartet, what kinds of things an ensemble expects to see, and just how to collaborate,” says Nielson, who praises the Formalist Quartet for its dedication to new music, “both as a quartet and individuals.”

The students involved showed no shortage of dedication either.

“Exciting winter-term opportunities like this were part of why I chose to come to Oberlin,” says Gabriel Hawes ’18, a student composer whose electroacoustic ocean was recorded by the Formalist Quartet and can now be heard on Soundcloud. “Being able to spend a whole month just focusing on composing, and then to get to work with an amazing ensemble that is highly experienced in experimental music, is exactly what I want out of winter term.”

The quartet recorded each student’s piece in Oberlin’s state-of-the-art Clonick Hall studio. The students not only got to hear their pieces played by a professional ensemble, but now also have a high-quality recording with which they can advertise their work. The quartet also provided feedback in the studio and later in individual meetings.

“I learned about the boundaries of what professional musicians are willing to do to their instruments,” says Sage Jenson ’17. Jenson’s Particle Study 2 involved computerized scores that slightly change within certain compositional bounds each time the piece is performed. “Since three members of the quartet are also composers, they gave me some extremely helpful input on my piece in regard to the unconventional notation,” says Jenson.

Students collaborated on equal terms with the quartet, sometimes asking to hear a certain passage performed differently or explaining their ideas.

Dan Karcher ’17, who as a violist finds a certain comfort in writing for strings, was impressed by the Formalist Quartet’s ability to engage with new pieces and composers. “What the quartet worked on the most was finding ways to understand what the composer wanted to communicate, both technically and aesthetically,” he says. “Discussing those aspects of my piece with them was a wonderful learning experience.”

Students also had the chance to hear the quartet explore technical and aesthetic questions in the work of established composers during two presentations that were open to other students. One focused on Christian Wolff and his use of indeterminacy, while the other encompassed Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, An Diotima, the history of the quartet’s relationship with the piece, and the idiosyncrasies of musical notation.

“It was inspiring to me to see how intimately and deeply the quartet invested themselves in the pieces,” Karcher says.

That investment was evident during the final event of the quartet’s residency: a public performance in Warner Concert Hall of music by Wolff, Kristian Ireland, and quartet members Mark Menzies and Andrew Tholl.

In introducing his piece, Only, Menzies mentioned that it quotes a violin line by Timothy McCormack ’07, a graduate with whom the quartet has collaborated.

Perhaps in a few years the Formalist Quartet will be back, performing a piece that quotes a young composer it met in Oberlin one exciting winter term.

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