Music in the details

Work by composer Amir Bitran ’16 will be featured during Harvard's ARTS FIRST festival.

By Anita Lo '16

Amir Bitran ’16 cares about details. We were only a few minutes into discussing his two compositions for ARTS FIRST, the student arts festival running April 28-May 1 at Harvard, when he stipulated that the process of composing music is not generalizable.

“There isn’t a formula, which is what’s hard and great about composing,” Bitran explained. “And if there was a formula, everyone would be Mozart.” Sometimes, he said, he’s inspired by specific sounds and images; one of his violin sonatas takes inspiration from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Sensory subtleties marked his memories of composition: The porch in his grandparents’ house in Israel is as vivid as the glissandi, vibrato and folk-like drones that show up in his pieces. 

At the ARTS FIRST performance fair, student musicians will perform Bitran’s “The Galilee Oak for String Quartet” and “New England Autumn: from his American Suite for Piano. “The Galilee Oak” grew out of a fascination with Arabic and Jewish folk music. Bitran drew inspiration for many of his pieces from his travels to Israel, his mother’s homeland. 

“I was interested in the way that folk musicians bend pitches and how they execute sharp cut-offs at the ends of notes,” Bitran said. “I was creating some sort of painting with a sharp, up-front folk theme against the background of an ethereal world.”

Bitran composed “New England Autumn” in his senior year of high school. It evokes, he hopes, “the crispness of fall, the sound of leaves trickling in the wind, bells that sound like the steeple bells in rural New England.” The particularity of his memory is surprising, especially for a piece composed four years ago, but these nuanced recollections were sprinkled throughout our conversation.

Bitran, who began playing piano at age 5, initially composed pieces because he felt drawn to writing for himself rather than playing what he was “asked to play.” Classical-influenced rock music – he gives the example of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” – influenced many of his early pieces, but as he continued to compose, his music became more refined and incorporated jazz, folk and other styles 

Here at Harvard, Bitran studies physics, which he sees as separate from his musical work. “Physics approaches the world in a very formal, systematic, mathematical way,” Bitran said, “but the whole point of music is to break any logical ways of thinking.”

For example: In a work-in-progress, the melody is scripted to be unpredictable. “I start with a melody that goes up a fourth, down a fourth and then a minor second right underneath,” he said. “It gives the piece an unexpected crunch, a sudden dissonance.” He demonstrated the minor second with his hands tapping on the table, the piano’s black and white keys materializing under his fingers. 

However illogical his compositions might be, they are not careless or chaotic. His precision shone through in the way he spoke about the process of composing.

“Starting a piece is one of the most exhilarating moments,” Bitran said. “But finishing a piece: sometimes it’ll be more a process of reflecting than anything else. You can’t be looking for inspiration in every single measure, and you have to make yourself finish it even if you don’t think you can. It’s a much more disciplined process. At the end I’ll rearrange things, trim melodies, write up more sketches and think about how I can make the piece more effective: What if the timpani was rolling a little earlier, for example? What if I changed violin’s line?” 

For Bitran, these minutiae make the piece. But, of course, what is music if not an amalgam of details?

Harvard student musicians will perform Bitran’s pieces “The Galilee Oak for String Quartet” and “New England Autumn” from American Suite for Piano at the ARTS FIRST Performance Fair April 30. The Performance Fair, which includes a multitude of arts, is free and open to the public.