When in Rome...Make Music

June 1, 2017
Cathy Partlow Strauss '84
Trio Ligatura at Kennedy Center
Photo credit: Margot Schulman

A student-formed ensemble enjoys high-profile gigs and a quest for deeper understanding.

Violinist Dana Johnson ’17, double-degree violist Corey Worley ’18, and cellist Aaron Wolff ’17 became Trio Ligatura out of a shared excitement about new music and a reconception of what it means to be a young classical musician in the 21st century. Formed in 2015 at Oberlin Conservatory, the trio expressed its passion through performances of 20th- and 21st-century compositions while frequently collaborating with living composers and artists.

During their time here, they appeared on the Danenberg Honors Recital; represented Oberlin on the Kennedy Center’s Conservatory Project series in Washington, D.C.; and performed on WOBC-FM 91.5's "Live from Studio B” and on Cleveland’s classical station WCLV-FM 104.9. They also worked in master classes with resident and guest artists at Oberlin—the Calder Quartet, Dimitri Murrath, and the Mivos String Quartet.

The trio's members each learned and exercised their entrepreneurial chops, mining Oberlin’s numerous student funding sources and using online crowd-funding platforms. They designed their own concert tours, giving performances in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Chicago, and at the SoundSCAPE Festival in Maccagno, Italy.

Much of their 2015-16 academic year was focused on Andrew Norman’s The Companion Guide to Rome, a 30-minute series of musical portraits of nine Roman churches. Following two high-profile performances of the piece on the honors recital and at the Kennedy Center, the trio decided to deepen its relationship with the work through a trip to Rome. They wanted to capture the experience of being in each of the churches in an attempt to bring to life the artistic and interpretive processes of creating something inspired by previous works of art. Their Rome venture was supported by an XARTS grant, a competitive, adjudicated granting program administered through Oberlin’s Creativity and Leadership Project.

With funding in place, they headed to Rome. There, they spent significant time in the churches featured in Norman’s work: gathering video footage, creating short audio recordings in the spaces, and writing about their experiences, all for use in the creation of a multimedia installation. (Their tour is chronicled in a Q&A on the Oberlin Conservatory Tumblr page.)

“One thing we learned through the entire process of this trip was to always ask—ask for help, ask for contacts, ask to see something extra, ask about the history," the trio wrote. "We learned and experienced so much, we connected with people at these churches, and we certainly developed as a team. And from that, we definitely feel more connected to the piece now that we have visited and experienced its inspiration for ourselves. The gestures feel more real, there’s less guesswork, we have a unified and solid vision of what these movements are referencing. But we also each have our own take and our own experiences to bring to the table, which will hopefully make for a more genuine and personalized performance.”

The resulting installation, Beyond the Black Dots: Expanding the Interpretive Process, debuted on Commencement/Reunion Weekend in May 2017. Oberlin’s Birenbaum Innovation and Performance Space offered the ideal environment to showcase the daylong work. The trio had created a looped 30-minute audio/video presentation interspersed with two full live performances of Norman's trio. They enjoyed consistently full audiences of alumni, parents, and about-to-be grads. The experience proved a fitting culmination of the trio’s undergraduate work—both Johnson and Wolff marched across the commencement stage later that weekend.

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