‘How to Fall Slowly’ showcases student compositions

John McDonald, professor of music and director of graduate studies at Tufts, performs during 'Tufts Composers: How to Fall Slowly,' hosted by the Department of Music in the Distler Performance Hall on Oct. 16. Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily

The Department of Music hosted “Tufts Composers: How to Fall Slowly,” on Wednesday, an installment of this season’s Tufts Composers concert series. The show featured a lineup of new, original works by Tufts students, faculty and alumni. The annual series was conceived to highlight works by students of two advanced composition courses: Contemporary Composition (MUS-0118) and Composition Practicum (MUS-0119). The two courses, both taught by Professor John McDonald, convene graduate and undergraduate students with performance experience and musical fluency.

Contemporary Composition is a seminar course which blends composition projects with lectures, musical analysis, visits from guest musicians and moreComposition Practicum takes a more collaborative approach, asking students to share their compositions with classmates and provide feedback on one another’s works.

Participating in either one of these courses impacts the composition process in a myriad of ways. For Mark Bolan “Bo” Konigsmark, a second-year graduate student whose works were featured in Wednesday’s concert, the course’s collaborative environment introduces new possibilities.

You always learn something new to add to your … skill set. It might be like a new color that you hear or like a timbral contrast of instruments that you didn’t know about before,” he said. “You pick up all these little things, and you get to put them into your piece.”

Konigsmark developed an interest in composition as a band director creating arrangements for his middle school students. He previously attended Berklee College of Music before coming to Tufts to pursue a master’s degree in composition. To him, the liberated creative environment at Tufts sets it apart from other programs.

“It’s a judgement free zone. You can bring forth your music, and however you do it … if it’s real and you are showing that you have a genuine, you know, pursuit and purpose in what you’re getting after, then nobody cares if it’s tonal or not tonal. It’s just art, it’s just your piece,” Konigsmark said. “And that’s really neat, because I think in a lot of other places it’s like, ‘This is the system, and you will write this way, and if you do not, we will cringe.’ You don’t get that at Tufts.

For students like Konigsmark, these courses provide an opportunity to sharpen existing skills and cultivate areas of expertise. For others, like junior Sam Graber-Hahn, they act as an introduction to the world of composition. Although he began playing the violin and the viola at the age of six, he had never composed music before enrolling in Contemporary Composition in his sophomore year. “I thought I would be pretty bad at composing,” he admitted, “but [Professor McDonald] is just a very encouraging guy and helped me a lot, so I’ve taken [one of the composition courses] every semester since.” During individual meetings, he added, McDonald’s capable mentorship helped him to expand his musical horizons.

He’s very good at noticing how you’re restricting yourself and broadening that. So I might bring him a piece and it’s, you know, in a pretty confined range and it doesn’t go many places. And then he plays it, and he says, ‘Well, what if you did this?’ And he’ll do something totally different,” Graber-Hahn said. “He’s a phenomenal pianist, so he can sort of play whatever he can think of. So he’ll give you lots of ideas for how to vary things and make stuff more expressive.

In a program designed to cultivate the skills of composers-in-training, one might expect students to play it safe — to seek refuge in well-worn styles and structures prior to developing a voice of their own. In practice, however, it would seem that the opposite is true. Like Konigsmark, Graber-Hahn described a wide variation within the compositions written and shared by other students of the program, and mentioned that it can facilitate learning. “People are working on very different things, and so it’s sort of helpful to see the whole range,” he noted.

The Tufts Composers concerts provide opportunities each semester for students to showcase their projects to the public. Concerts are performed by a mix of students and professionals, including faculty members like McDonald and Thomas Stumpf, both respected pianists and composers in their own rights. “It’s cool,” Graber-Hahn said. “You’ve got world-class performers playing student music … [and] all your friends are [at the concert] listening to their music, and you get to talk to each other about what you’ve written.

Even in the performance phase, the program allows students to take ownership of every aspect of their composition. For example, the two works Konigsmark brought to Wednesday’s concert were composed with a very specific nine-piece ensemble in mind: two soprano vocalists, B-flat clarinet, B-flat trumpet, piano, harp, violin, viola, cello and percussion. This unorthodox instrumentation is the combination used by the Into the Light Ensemble, a cast of friends-turned-collaborators who Konigsmark met as a student at Berklee. When this same group of musicians performed in Distler Auditorium Wednesday night, Konigsmark helped them bring his work to life, playing alongside them in one of his pieces and conducting them for the other.

Graber-Hahn also contributed two pieces to Wednesday’s concert program, one of which was written with himself in mind. Despite identifying himself as a “terrible pianist,” he composes mostly for solo piano because it allows him to explore variations in harmonic language without the burdens of complex instrumentation. In this piece, however, there’s a different reason behind the choice. “I wrote it so that I could have something to play,” he said, “and so it’s very easy, repetitive, something that a beginning pianist can play.”

Such musical self-possession is a far cry from the disillusionment he felt after high school, having lost interest in both the violin and classical music itself. Today, Graber-Hahn credits the composition program — and its cornerstone concert series in particular — with reviving these interests. “I think if it weren’t for the [Tufts] Composers concerts, I would be doing no classical music and very little violin,” he said.