Weekender: Composer, Tufts alum Rebecca Sacks shares her latest work, ‘Songs for the Earth’

The Granoff Music Center is pictured on May 7, 2014. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily Archives

Rebecca Sacks, a Tufts alum (LA ’06) and notable composer, was recently commissioned through the generous Daniels’ Family Gift to compose for the Tufts Chorale and Alumni Singers. Her piece, “Songs for the Earth,” will debut on Sunday, April 7, in the Granoff Music Center.

Sacks has been a musician since the age of four, when she began to study classical piano. Yet it was not until she was in high school that she unearthed her passion for jazz and improvisation.

“My piano teacher retired,” Sacks said. “So my grandmother, who I was very close with and who studied jazz piano, said to my mom, ‘Why doesn’t Rebecca try jazz piano lessons?’ So we found a teacher who ended up being incredible, and he started teaching me the principles of jazz.”

Through her jazz studies, Sacks developed a profound love for harmony and began to implement what she had learned into her compositions — of which she produced prolifically in high school. Despite this, Sacks described herself as being a “closet musician” throughout high school, and was not a part of any curricular ensembles; she was more involved with the visual arts.

Sacks spoke more to how jazz influenced her music education.

“I really started to learn about how music worked; not just being able to play notes on a page, but being able to create [my] own music.”

In 2006, Sacks graduated summa cum laude from Tufts with a Bachelor’s Degree in Music. She continued on to earn a Master of Fine Arts in music theory and composition from Brandeis. Her own discovery of jazz harmony was what motivated Sacks to pursue these degrees, and eventually establish a career in music.

As a young composer, Sacks places a certain emphasis on the establishment of her “compositional voice.” For many composers, this voice is derived from mentors, but Sacks takes a more original approach.

“My overall goal for all the pieces I write is to write beautiful music that touches people and is accessible,” Sacks said.

Her works are undeniably beautiful and do not try to mimic the work of other composers; Sacks’ style is uniquely her own. Her music combines elements from the Romantic and Impressionist traditions with jazz and contemporary progressions, themes and motives.

One of the most unique elements of Sacks’ recent music is her idea of “musical activism,” which is especially relevant for this upcoming concert and the premiere of “Songs for the Earth.” As someone who is passionate about the environment and concerned about climate change, Sacks sees her musical ability as an asset that will aid in her efforts to help the planet.

“I have grief and I don’t know how to process it,” Sacks said, in reference to hearing news of climate change and the destruction of the planet. “I believe that healing the planet can’t be completely solved by science. We have to heal ourselves in order to heal the planet.”

Through music, Sacks intends to help the audience in understanding and deepening their love of nature, as well as working to share her values of environmental protection to those who hear her music. Sacks emphasized that it is important to form a relationship with and cultivate a love for nature if we want to have a chance at helping the planet.

“Songs for the Earth” is a work in three movements orchestrated for choir, piano and various percussion instruments. The music is all composed by Sacks, and the text that is sung by the choir comes from three poems that Sacks came across in a book entitled “Prayers for the Earth.” The first movement is set to the poem, “When the Animals Come to Us,” by Gary Lawless, and plays to the sadness that many people face when they begin to feel too small to help the planet in any significant way. The text of the second movement is the poem, “My Heart Soars,” by Chief Dan George, the former chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and is an expression of the love that Sacks herself feels for nature. The third and final movement is set to the shortest amount of text, but is temporally the longest movement. The poem in the third movement is Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “Inversnaid.” Sacks sees this final poem as combining both the sadness and the love that had been expressed in the earlier movements.

Despite these poems having come from a book of prayers, Sacks deliberately chose poems that were accessible to people of any faith, belief system or lack thereof. These texts are not explicitly connected to any religious group so they can be experienced and appreciated by people of diverse backgrounds, which can impact a wider audience. The music to which these poems are set is full of complex harmony and chord progressions, but not so complex that it impedes the audience’s ability to understand the music.

The idea of musical activism is not a prominent art form as of now, but it is something that she would love to see more of in the future, according to Sacks. When asked about potential growth in musical activism in the coming years, Sacks said that she “could definitely see it happening,” whether that be with regards to the climate, social issues, political issues or other topics requiring discussion.

After the upcoming premiere of her piece, Sacks hopes to spark a conversation about climate change among the audience members.

“We need to solve [climate change] with our whole selves,” she said. “This is how I can most effectively help the planet.”

Sacks opens up a discussion about using one’s talents as a means to create change. People of all different backgrounds have assets that can be brought into activism, and the use of the arts in activism is often overlooked.

“I am sure other people are doing it” Sacks said, referring to other musical activists. “I’m just not aware of it.”

Sacks hopes to see more music, poetry and visual artwork regarding such topics as climate change, gender equality and other modern issues.

The concert will also feature a collaboration with Deke Sharon (LA ’91), another Tufts alum and distinguished musician and arranger, as well as a performance of Johannes Brahms’ “Ein Deutsches Requiem.” The soloists will be Deborah Selig (soprano) and Philip Lima (baritone), and the Tufts Concert Choir and Chamber Singers will be directed under the baton of Jamie Kirsch. Pianists Edith Auner and Thomas Stumpf will be accompanying the chorale.

This concert will be on Sunday, April 7 at 1 p.m. in the Distler Auditorium, Granoff Music Center. This is a free event; no tickets are required.