Showing, doing, being

Students from Vijay Iyer’s Creative Music Seminar reflect on classroom experiences and performing at ARTS FIRST this year.  

By Anita Lo '16 

The performance fair at ARTS FIRST, the annual spring festival of the arts at Harvard, is a rolling showcase for student artists in all disciplines. This year, among the many offerings, students in Vijay Iyer’s Creative Music Seminar will perform during a four-hour session directed by Iyer on May 1 at Harvard Yard’s Holden Chapel. All the music will be original, and much of it is a product of the music composed in the class.

Carlos Snaider ’17 will be playing guitar in a sextet, Jonah Philion ’18 will play alto saxophone and Eden Girma Harvard/NEC ’18 will provide vocals. I spoke with them individually to get their thoughts on the class, the composition process and the upcoming performances. 

On improvisation

Carlos Snaider: One of the things that moves me about improvisation is that it involves a flow state where you can hear across differences.   don’t think this is something that’s unique to music.  We actually are doing it all the time, and the one of the reason it’s so seemingly hard to come by is that it is difficult to identify in the moment. I try to think about improvising in everything I do, whether it’s cooking a meal or talking to someone. I also listen to a lot of music. That’s the best way to learn.

Vijay Iyer in a session with saxophonist Jonah Philion '18Jonah Philion: The key is knowing how what you’re going to play will sound before you play it. After that, the goal becomes figuring out all of the sounds that you want to know how to play. Other music and friends all provide inspiration to discover new sounds.

On composing for ARTS FIRST

Jonah Philion: Usually I get an idea for either a form or a melody, and I record myself playing around on the piano for a few minutes and listen to the recording later to see if the idea is worth pursuing. In general the forms are inspired by ideas I’ve been thinking about from physics or math or poetry or philosophy, and the melodies are shaped by my emotions. For “Tents,” I was studying for an orgo midterm and I figured out a long synthesis problem for the first time on my own. To celebrate, I went to the piano in the Wigglesworth basement and played around with a few chords and came up with a way to transition from a phrygian sound to a lydian sound. Later I wrote a melody over the chords which became the song. I was pretty tense studying for that midterm but I like camping so I called the song “Tents.”

Eden Girma: I wrote a piece loosely based on the Alice Walker essay called “In Search of My Mother’s Garden.” In the essay, Walker talks a lot about her lineage and how her lineage (especially on her mother’s side) plays a part in shaping her own identity. Being Ethiopian American, it’s always been a process to understand and grapple with those parts of my identity, especially through language. My piece is called “Her Garden.” It's sung mostly in Amharic, but it basically tries to communicate the sense of loss you feel when your parents’ culture, your culture is fading away as a consequence of the fading of language. Some of the lyrics are: “Mother I'm sorry, where is the language I've forgotten / By my mouth her garden is fading / Forgive me or I will fade away too.” And in composing the music for the piece, I wanted to reflect the confusion I felt by drawing from harmonies and rhythms in Ethiopian music, but distorting it with irregular rhythms or harmonies that clashed with it.

 On Iyer’s class

Carlos Snaider: What the class gave me was the opportunity to really workshop some of my compositional ideas with the groups I was playing with. There are not many opportunities to really experiment with different compositional and performance ideas in a group without much of a time crunch. One of the things the class did, actually, was blur the distinctions of performing, improvising and composing. We would spend a long time – sometimes a full two-hour rehearsal – looping an idea for a composition that one of us brought in and allowing ideas to emerge. So the composition we bring in usually acts as a frame, and every time we play it, we’re composing and improvising within it at the same time. 

Eden Girma: There was a point last semester when we were rehearsing a lot; everyone was angry and frustrated, and then we had our recital. It was like a breath of fresh air in the constant continuum of rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. How can I explain it? Imagine it's like the summer, and there are leaves on the trees and green grass and flowers, but it’s also Monday, and the sky is gray. It's summertime, everything is alive, but you have to go to work or class, and you're not in the moment to appreciate it. But at one moment in the day, the sky turns blue, the sun comes out, you finally got out of the class, you're walking down the street and you're a part of so much in that moment, feeling a sense of awe. That was the difference between our rehearsing and our performing. I guess I don’t even really like the word performing. Not performing—just playing stuff. Or more like showing, doing. Being.

ARTS FIRST takes place April 29-May 2, and the performance fair, with more than 100 free events, takes place 1-5 p.m. Saturday, May 1 at Harvard. ARTS FIRST is open to the public. Most of the events are free and appropriate for all ages.