He's got Grooves going

John Singer Sargent Study for El Jaleo at Harvard Art MuseumJonah Philion '18 is the curator behind an ARTS FIRST concert that combines original compositions and the collection at Harvard Art Museums.  

By Cherie Hu '17

Jonah Philion ‘18 wears many hats. As a student in the Harvard/New England Conservatory Dual Degree program, he not only is pursuing a joint concentration in physics and mathematics at Harvard, but also studies jazz performance at NEC and takes advantage of a myriad of musical opportunities across both campuses, from honing his composition and improvisation skills under Harvard Music Professor Vijay Iyer to playing saxophone in an eight-piece combo under NEC faculty member Jason Moran.

Most recently, Philion is the curator behind New Grooves: Original Music Inspired by Visual Art, a program of compositions by Harvard undergraduates that will take place 1-2:30 p.m. Saturday, April 29 in the Calderwood Courtyard of the Harvard Art Museums, as part of the university’s annual ARTS FIRST festival April 27-30. The featured composers will include Philion, Eden Girma ’18, Max Lesser ’19, Jacob Lurye ‘18, Carlos Snaider ’17, Brandon Snyder ’18 and Sam Wu ’17, who wrote works inspired either by the physical space of the museums or by its ongoing exhibitions. The concert kicks off an afternoon of student performances in the Courtyard across a wide variety of genres.

Jonah Philion
Jonah Philion '18 Photo: Jacob Lurye '18
I got to chat with Philion about his vision for the concert, his dual interests in music and physics, and his approach to improvisation and composition. An edited version of our conversation follows.

The student compositions in this program are billed as “site-specific.” Could you explain what that means in relation to the Harvard Art Museums, and why you chose this particular venue?
Last year at ARTS FIRST, I performed in an original saxophone trio called Composure with Max Lesser and Ryan Park-Chan ‘18 in the Harvard Art Museums. We improvised just one song completely freely for 20 minutes, and people loved it. I got in touch with Erin Northington [Manager of Student Engagement Programs at the Harvard Art Museums], and we started working together on another similar program of student performances for this year.

In terms of the Courtyard itself, because of the washy ambience and delayed sound perception, a visitor standing on the ground floor will hear completely different sounds from a visitor on the top floor. I envision people walking around the museum not only looking at different paintings, but also listening to different pieces of music from vastly different angles and perspectives. The goal of this concert overall is to make that ambience a positive rather than negative attribute of the space. A lot of the music featured in this program will make use of that with more fluid and quasi-random rhythms.

Tell me more about your own piece, and how it was inspired by the space.
I wrote a piece for violin, cello, viola and bass – a string quartet, but not in the traditional style or instrumentation. Since the Courtyard is so ambient, I thought it would be nice to compose a more ambient, repetitive piece. I found out a way to simulate the rhythm of wind chimes on my computer, and then wrote down those rhythms in standard musical notation. The result is super minimalist, similar to Steve Reich. I’m also advising the instrumentalists to perform the music like wind chimes: using minimal vibrato, and making all attacks the same strength and timbre.

Are you interested in exploring such intersections among music, physics and CS more in the future?
I’m definitely becoming more interested. It’s funny because the first time you compose something in Sibelius, you’re already doing something with music and CS. I did physics research last summer and fell in love with it, and obviously want to continue doing music as much as I am right now. I realized that if I divide my time separately between music and physics, there will always be someone who does only physics and knows more than me, and someone who does only music and knows more than me. The only option left is to fuse the best of both worlds together, and find ways to work in both fields simultaneously – for instance, working on my coding skills or analysis skills for physics, in a way that can produce music.

How has Harvard impacted your approach to performing, composing and/or thinking about music?
I took Vijay Iyer’s course Music 173r: Creative Music during my freshman spring, and that completely changed what I think is the objective of composing music. I used to think the goal of composition was really derivative – just writing a catchy tune or coming up with something really complicated just for complexity’s sake. Through Iyer’s class, I learned a lot about the importance and purpose of devising and developing a particular aesthetic throughout an entire piece, which is much more difficult. In that process, Iyer also showed me how to take what I know from improvisation and turn it into a piece of composed music.

Jason Moran, my combo teacher at NEC, has also had a big influence on me. He’s really pushed me to try to channel all my knowledge and experience into making music that I genuinely want to make and that means something personally to me, as opposed to just jotting down random ideas that come to my head.

What excites you the most about ARTS FIRST?
I love hearing student groups that I never knew existed before – like a student beatboxing group, which I saw perform last year at the Queen’s Head. I also love seeing people from all walks of life coming out to support the arts. Usually, Harvard people perform only for Harvard people. It’s really nice to perform for a completely new crowd, and to see how your music affects them.

I’m also really glad the Art Museums are hosting student compositions, and I think it should happen more often and independently of ARTS FIRST. They seem to really want to close the gap between the museums and the student body, and I think these types of concerts are an overlooked opportunity.