Oxy poets and composers team up to produce melodic accompaniment to the Homecoming concert and President Veitch’s inauguration
This weekend won’t be an ordinary Homecoming at Occidental College as we celebrate the inauguration of Occidental’s 14th president, Jonathan Veitch. The inauguration festivities will add to the sports events, pep rallies, alumni receptions and “nonfire,” all typical of homecoming weekend. One of the most exciting moments of the weekend will be the premiere of musical works performed by the Glee Club and instrumentalists that have been created by Oxy’s artistic community for this special occasion.
Three Oxy faculty members – Music professors Andre Myers, Bruno Louchouarn and Jennifer Logan – were commissioned to compose two original musical pieces each. Of the six pieces, three are instrumental and three feature text by Oxy poets – Career Development Center Director Valerie Savior, ECLS professor Martha Ronk and Robinson Jeffers. Friday’s Homecoming Concert will feature the Glee Club singing the commissioned choral works while the instrumental pieces will be performed at the Inauguration ceremony the next day. Music Department Chair Irene Girton proposed the idea of commissioning the pieces. According to Girton, the pieces “exemplify the best of Occidental College: creativity, collaboration and hope” and will “showcase Oxy’s artistic talent and commitment to the arts.” Creating these works required a unique interdisciplinary collaboration between faculty and students and between composers and writers. “The commissioned pieces have been an excellent learning experience,” said Glee Club section-leader Caroline Wade (senior). “I’ve especially appreciated working so closely with the composers, because it’s rare that we get that kind of direct insight into the creative process. It’s a privilege to represent Oxy’s music department and student body at such a significant time.” Savior notes that the interdisciplinary collaboration is well representative of Oxy’s philosophy. “It represents Oxy, our liberal arts tradition, what is possible in art and what is possible through collaborative efforts,” she said.
Most importantly, the pieces honor the significance of Veitch’s appointment and the expectation of his successful tenure. Each piece is imbued with themes of beginnings, discovery, knowledge, intellect, humanity and nature – themes that express the essence of a liberal arts education. Myers, who teaches composition and music theory, used two haikus written by Savior in his choral piece “Another Door,” a companion to his instrumental piece, “This Door, This Day.”
To emphasize a spirit of discovery and new beginnings, Myers and Savior chose haikus that describe a bougainvillea branch that bends to form an archway – “another door” – in relationship to a palm frond below. “His range in music, his sensitivity, made me feel he would appreciate the subtly of haiku and create something very beautiful and powerful,” said Savior of Myers.
Myers said that “Savior’s poems not only shed light on a bold, red, California bougainvillea as it expands under the august shadow of an ancient palm, but also illuminate the space between the two plants. That space, a site of confluence and harmony between opposites, is where the piece finds triumph and cause for celebration.” Myers also found inspiration in architect Maya Lin’s outdoor installation “Peace Chapel” in Pennsylvania. He composed “This Door, This Day” to reflect the Chinese philosophical idea of yin and yang. Myers describes the piece as a fanfare, similar to “Another Door” in sounds but higher, faster, louder and designed for daytime performance. Myers hopes that the pieces will invoke a positive beginning to Veitch’s appointment. “I hope it ushers in the equanimity that will provide sound leadership for many years to come,” he said.
Logan teaches music theory and musicianship, materials of music and electronic music, and is also a composer specializing in electronic music. She chose an excerpt from a Jeffers poem as lyrics for her piece “The Atom to be Split.” Jeffers, a celebrated Californian poet who graduated from Oxy in 1905, is the focus of this fall’s “The Big Read,” an initiative founded by the National Endowment for the Arts. At “Jeffers at Occidental Day” on Nov. 7, the Glee Club will reprise its performance of “The Atom to be Split” in an event that will include diverse artistic performances, according to Special Collections Librarian Dale Stieber.
The text of Logan’s composition comes from Jeffers’ epic poem, “Roan Stallion.” The poem tells the story of a young mother, California, who comes to make a special connection with the stallion that her husband won gambling. According to Logan, “The stallion inspires her to ponder the nature of humanity.” Logan noted that, “California lives with hardship but is able to see beyond herself into a greater realm of humanity and finds beauty, as well as the strength to make very difficult decisions.”
Logan said that her motivation for the piece came from the idea that “through so many different angles of experience, we can become more aware of who we are as individuals, how we impact the world around us, and how we ourselves interpret the events of our lives [. . .] [We have the] ability to find beauty where we least expect it.”
Logan said that the purpose of art, and music especially, is to discover this hidden beauty and to express it in a way that cannot be communicated through words. To this end, the music reflects the energy and sentiment of the text, rather than conveying a specific message.
Logan recognizes that some might find her piece unusual and strange. She said that the work is dedicated to her students, who have impressed her with their vitality, energy and passion. She hopes to encourage them to embrace new ways of thinking about music. “It is a challenge, [but] by the nature of the challenge, they bring the nature of Jeffers’ sentiment to life,” she said.
The same convictions resonate with the second electronic music piece Logan composed for the Inauguration ceremony, titled “I Am One With You.” “You can expect to hear something that is possibly different from your daily musical experiences,” Logan said. “It balances sine waves, a gentle, transformed melody, and chimes.” It also includes the words of Oxy music students, whom Logan prompted to write about their most profound experiences or lessons at Oxy. Their poetic phrases resonate deeply.
“[The occasion gives us the] opportunity for growth, as individuals, and as a community,” Logan said. “We have a unique environment to explore so much, be it through courses, through discourse, through friendships [. . .] as well as through trials. We are a community, and we are here for each other.”
Louchouarn, the third commissioned composer, teaches music, multimedia and cognitive science and is also director of the Keck Language and Culture Studio. He composed “Why/Why Not” specifically for the Occidental Glee Club. He appreciates that the Glee Club consists of individuals from many backgrounds, and believes this enhances the group’s music. Louchouarn said that his piece is “meditative but strong.” Ronk, who wrote the lyrics for Louchouarn’s music, describes her text as inspired by Shakespeare and “focused on questions and quandaries.” For Ronk, asking “why?” is often the first step that leads to intellectual analysis.
“The piece encapsulates a fundamental quandary about existence,” said Louchouarn. He sees the question “why?” as a challenge while “why not?” offers the possibility of acceptance. He said that “This importance of intellectual community and creativity is very much what Oxy is about and one of the things brought forth by President Veitch.”
Ronk and Louchouarn were pleased to attend a recent Glee Club rehearsal. Louchouarn expressed his fascination in hearing a piece that he had before only imagined, while Ronk enjoyed observing the Glee Club’s process of discipline, repetition and focus.
Glee Club has spent much of the semester with a busy rehearsal schedule in preparation for the Homecoming Concert. “It was a big challenge to have the concert this early in the semester, but we have been able to work through it,” said Kristine Nowlain (sophomore), who is also the musical director of the all-women a capella group the Accidentals.
“It’s also fun to work on three songs where the composers themselves come into our rehearsals and listen and give us feedback,” she said. “We get to hear the story behind their pieces, and it makes it much more relatable.”
Louchouarn describes the Homecoming Concert as “a journey in moods and places and times,” while the Inauguration ceremony music is more structured. His second piece evokes a style that is more rousing than meditative. Called “Commencement,” the piece features a performance by the L.A. Percussion Ensemble.
The other key element is the sound of voices of Oxy students themselves. Every year in May, graduating seniors record their names so that they will be pronounced correctly by the Dean at Commencement. Louchouarn is using these recordings, mixed with sounds of percussion, to form a tapestry of voices and names that gradually will grow into the sound of a crowd roaring its presence. He said, “The inauguration of a President is a great celebration of the potential and growth as well as the hope and pledge of excellence shared by students, faculty, and staff.”
“The Glee Club is thrilled to perform the premiere of these works, all created within the Oxy community,” said Glee Club Director Desiree Lavertu.
But perhaps the person whose opinion matters most is President Veitch himself. “Their work will be a fitting celebration of the College and will call attention to the immense range of talent gathered in Occidental’s faculty,” he said. “I am moved to think that they have put in so much time and energy on my behalf.”
The commissioned works will be performed at the Homecoming concert (Oct. 23 at 5 p.m. in Thorne Hall) and at the Inauguration (Oct. 25 at 10 a.m. in the Greek Bowl). Following the Inauguration, Glee Club, Cadence and the Accidentals will perform at noon in the Quad.
Additional reporting by Chloe Jenkins-Sleczkowski.
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