With ‘New At Noon,’ Tufts Composers Concert Series takes an intentional approach to experimentation

“New At Noon: Fingerboard and Pedalboard,” a concert highlighting the work of student composers diverse in musical discipline and background, took place in Goddard Chapel. (The Tufts Daily Archives)

The melodies of viola, organ and piano filled Goddard Chapel on Oct. 27. Entitled “New At Noon: Fingerboard, Pedalboard,” the free show debuted seven student compositions centered around viola and organ, one faculty composition by Professor John McDonald and featured a sonata by guest composer Howard Frazin.

Students of McDonald’s contemporary composition seminar and composition practicum worked intensely through this semester to refine their compositions for Friday’s performance, which was the first of two noontime performances this semester and part of the broader Tufts Composers Concert Series. The concert highlighted the work of student composers diverse in musical discipline and background, consisting of undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students.

Though the instrumentation — viola and organ, from which “New At Noon: Fingerboard, Pedalboard” drew its name — was fixed for the assignment, the composers’ diverse musical backgrounds made for an exciting listening experience. The compositions ranged from the sweet and tonal to the jarring and experimental and everything in between.

In an interview with the Daily, McDonald discussed the diverse interests and goals of these student-composers.

“Everyone has a different thing they want to do,” he said. “One of the graduate students is particularly interested in writing music for video games, another is a performance artist who thinks in terms of acting and directing, as well as composing … I’m a composer-performer [myself] … one of the undergraduates is a bassoonist who plays in the orchestra; he’s a computer science [and] music double major.”

For McDonald, the self-proclaimed “curator” of the performance, the compositional processes at work in his seminars and practica remain an endless source of fascination.

“What’s interesting to me is that we’re all in a room together, and all these dividing lines disappear,” he said. “We’re all trying to write for the same thing, so how do we do it?”

In preparation for the performance, the students and faculty immersed themselves in a detailed, intentional process that did not start and end at writing notes on a lined sheet. McDonald recruited staff violist Anna Griffis, faculty violist Scott Woolweaver and local composer-organist William Cooper to perform. Composition students worked closely with performers to fine-tune their pieces in the days leading up to the performance.

Griffis explained this process. 

“It’s a great opportunity for students to write for slightly unusual instrumentation and be able to collaborate,” she said. “They’ll sit in the rehearsals and work with us, and we’ll give them feedback: There’s a better way to notate this … then, they’ll give us feedback, [for example] I really mean this, try it a different way or this is the sound I’m going for.”

McDonald further explained this collaboration between composers and performers.

“When it’s nine composers, you probably don’t have an equally personal relationship with every composer, but in pulling apart the music and figuring out how to make it work you’re really having a kind of … local situation,” he said. “It’s a close working situation that you have to develop.”

For first-year graduate student Ryan Carraher, who comes from a jazz-guitar background, the assignment helped him develop new skills to approach composition, but also allowed him freedom to apply many of the principles he had previously honed to different instrumentation.

His piece, “Rubatosis” (2017) draws conceptually from the “tempo of the mind,” requiring performers to improvise. Carraher gave each instrumentalist a passage from a book or poem, a key that denoted each letter of the alphabet to a musical pitch or phrase. Carraher then tasked each performer with reading through their passage, letter by letter, associating each letter with the established key and immediately playing the associated phrase or pitch.

For Carraher, a rich collaborative community that encourages his ambitious experimentation is invaluable. It was the community that drew him to Tufts for a graduate education in the first place.

“That’s why I came to Tufts,” he said. “[My previous school] had a really oppressive community — there wasn’t really any kind of experimentation … I was never into that, and always wanted to experiment with ideas that I think are interesting. The fact that John McDonald is really interested in it and the performers seem really interested in it is just a breath of fresh air. It sums up the community here how diverse and accepting the community here is.”

Despite the compositional community’s vibrancy, Griffis acknowledged some of the concerns regarding contemporary classical performance’s accessibility to the broader community.

“It’s a little tricky to navigate around for people who are not on the music department and even for people on the music department,” she said.

Elaborating further, Griffis celebrated the challenging nature of the types of compositions featured on Friday.

“Generally the audiences are very small, but very dedicated,” she said. “Because it is new music — it’s not pop music and it’s not Mozart — much of it is sort of avant-garde and not totally normal to the average listener of average classical music and pop music. That being said, some of the students and faculty here produce really incredible music, and they’re really getting expert training here.”

For Griffis, events like “New At Noon: Fingerboard, Pedalboard” are an important fixture within the Tufts music department. But Griffis encourages audiences to take part in this experience as well.

“Because there’s a really positive energy … there’s always a collaborative nature about them,” she said. “I think they’re really fun experiences for the audience as well, as they can see that the performers really care about performing the pieces well, and the composition students and faculty members really care about the performers.”

In Goddard’s intimate setting, with a catered lunch afterwards, events like “New At Noon: Fingerboard, Pedalboard” are the perfect setting for listeners to be inspired by fresh sounds, challenge their ears and get to know fellow Tufts community members. The next installment of this series, “New at Noon: Prepared Foods,” will take place on Nov. 17. For those uninitiated to the challenging and beautiful music created by the Tufts University contemporary classical compositional community, Nov. 17 will be an excellent day to begin.


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