Student and alumni composers bring music to Lang

On Saturday evening, October 29, student and alumni composers, singers and musicians gathered for a recital, which began at 8:00 p.m. in the Lang Concert Hall. The Swarthmore Department of Music and Dance, Alumni Relations Office and Council and The Friends of Music and Dance at Swarthmore College jointly hosted the 2nd Annual Student and Alumni Composers Concert, which featured collaborations and original pieces by 24 alumni and ten student composers.

Deborah How ’89 began the evening by introducing the variety of performers and composers attending the recital, noting that they ranged across a wealth of styles, from a cappella to modern classical. The first performance was a collection of three songs in the Sacred Harp tradition, a form of sacred choral music which originated in the southern United States. Becky Wright ’11 added to the introduction by describing elements of the tradition. Eleanor Glewwe ’12 further described Sacred Harp as “a cappella in four parts. Singers sit in a square facing each other. It’s a participatory tradition, so it is rare and odd for Sacred Harp singing to be done on stage in front of an audience.”

Sacred Harp tunes and texts date from the 18th century, but the tradition, as Glewwe notes, is a living tradition. “The songs we sang at the concert were all written in 2011 by recent Swarthmore alums who sang Sacred Harp at Swarthmore.” This included “Contrition” (2011) a piece by fellow performer Becky Wright.

Wright first became interested in composing at Camp Fasola, a sacred harp singing camp in 2009, and cites A.M. Cagle and the Denson brothers, early 20th century sacred harp composers, as influences. The composer added, “One of my compositions is set to be published in a new book of shape-note songs,” the musical style sacred harp falls under, “within the next year.”

The original compositions of the evening included several styles, encompassing a variety of instruments and instrumentation, featuring traditional orchestral alongside less traditional pieces like political folk songs — in the vein Woody Guthrie — such as “Getting Off On the TSA” (2011) by Lisa Wildman ’84. “Open and Syncher” (2011) was a piece composed by Alejandro Sills ’13 for piano four-hands, which he performed with fellow composer Ben Kapilow ’13, who himself had a solo piano feature. Also notable was “Bronze Age” (2011) an ambient/experimental composition that included mandolins, door hinges and zithers, composed by David Barnes ’88.

Barnes, who began composing as a first-year at Swarthmore, described the evolution of his personal style. “Initially it was various types of progressive rock music, then becoming more experimental, incorporating found object percussion and eventually an entire ensemble of self-designed industrial percussion instruments.” The latter trend of experimentation is evident in “Bronze Age,” a piece that Barnes notes is his most recently finished piece in the genre. “I compose primarily by recording direct to computer using acoustic and electronic instruments, adding layer after layer, and then doing extensive editing and sound design,” he said.

Elizabeth Mountford Corson ’92 composed with Gabrielle Daniello ’92 and Jeanine Crow contributed to the evening’s diversity with their folk song, “Bats in the Belfry” (1997). The piece blended vocals with soprano saxophone (also played by the composer), as well as guitar. Ms. Mountford Corson, when asked about her story as a composer, said, “I can’t say I thought of myself as a composer until a month or so ago when Debby How got in touch with me about participating in the concert on Saturday.” Though she has only written two songs of her own, Ms. Mountford Corson added that she was very pleased with the recital. “Perhaps by next year,” she said, “I’ll have another one ready to share.”

Later in the evening, Dr. Mark Alburger ’79 presented his composition, “The Inner Circles, Op. 199” (2011), performing the percussion section of the piece. Each of the pieces for movements corresponded to a planet in our solar system as well as a month, for example, “I. Sun [January]” as listed in the event program.

Alburger described his inspirations, saying, “I’ve been influenced by music ranging from ancient to contemporary, as well notions derived from art, drama, literature, nature, philosophy, politics, psychology, and science. Igor Stravinsky, George Crumb and Philip Glass have been particular influences.” A prolific composer, Alburger performed his 150th Opus for his 50th birthday benefit concert with the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra.

Though many of the feature composers have not been as prolific as Dr. Alburger, the juxtaposition of styles, experience levels and instruments created an evening of celebration for composition and performance of any kind. Moreover, the event not only highlighted the long tradition of music and the strength of the department at Swarthmore, but also the varied ways in which music can speak and shapes student lives far after graduation has commenced.

Those looking for more information can visit the website of the Swarthmore College Music Alums, The site includes audio recordings of alumni compositions, as well as directories for Music Department alumni and students.

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