One of Darien’s Best Kept Secrets
NEIRAD enilno edition
Darien has a thriving arts program which is manifested in a variety of ways. There are the big events that attract most of our attention, like the spring and winter concerts, Theatre 308’s productions, and the end-of-year art show. Then there are the more subtle ones, ranging from jazz-band and choral showcases to the displays of paintings, drawings, and murals plastering many of our schools’ walls. Let’s pat ourselves on the back, DHS students, we do a lot with our creativity. So then, I guess that covers just about all of our artsy bases, right?
Well, y’see, I know a couple people who would beg to differ (actually, the more I dig, the more of these people I find). So in a couple of words, no, wrong. You’re forgetting one big one: the annual Darien Young Composers’ Concert. But hey, I don’t blame you, because to say this event flies under the radar would be, at the very least, apt.
Blame it on timing–squeezed in between Theatre 308’s annual musical and the spring concert series, the concert sits in a strange period of limbo when people’s attention is directed, for the most part, to other places. Blame it on the fact that the show lacks much publicity, being sanctioned by the general DPS music system but no single group in particular with the ability to make a strong push. Borrowing a line from Mika, I wouldn’t blame it on the girls or boys, but no matter where you place the blame, the simple fact is this humble event does not get the attention it deserves.
Don’t get me wrong–the Composers Concert does not need excessive fanfare and standing-room-only crowds to be a success. The kids in this show are not performing for fame and attention but out of their own simple love of music.
The fact that we have enough kids in this town with these qualities to put on a show is a success in my book. Still, the show was so good this year that it just needs to be recognized. And you don’t have to take my word for it either. Junior Zach Heyde said that this year was particularly good, a, “better year.” Knowing that he has participated continuously since he was seven or eigtht (so long he can’t even remember), I feel comfortable deferring to Zach’s judgment of the April 7 event.
The show began with a solid block of 16 elementary schoolers. Yeah, wow. Want more wow? I can honestly say each one’s piece brought a smile to my face. Yeah, I know. Wow. I have participated in this event twice (I think in ’04 and ’08), once when I myself was in elementary school. In neither concert do I remember being so blown away by the kids of this age bracket. Maybe I have a shoddy memory, or maybe this year’s elementary schoolers were notably exceptional, but I obviously did not know what I was getting myself into.
The songs presented in this section ranged greatly in complexity and instrumentation. On the more basic end was a selection entitled Red Roses by Kate Collier. This jingle which opened the show, lasting 15 seconds tops, consisted of about three notes played in a figaro-figaro pattern. It took longer for her to walk on and off the stage than play the piece. Light and buoyant but surprisingly confident and loud, it was a nice hallmark of a sort that grabbed my attention and set the tone for the show.
After this primary musical effort the next performance presented an immediate contrast. All of a sudden, the kids were playing legitimate songs with structures and melodies. None involved more than two musicians on stage, but multiple forms of arrangement were featured. A majority was written for solo piano or piano and voice, but other combinations included a woodwind duet, a solo and duo guitar piece, and violin-vocal collaboration. Some were performed completely by students, while teachers played backing parts on others.
To get a good sense of these 15 others, I present three selections that seem to represent the general vibe pertinent throughout. Of the multiple piano-vocal pieces, Ox Ridge-3rd-grader Alexa Cornacchia’s A Dream Come True was perhaps the darkest, all things relatively speaking. Its cheery title masks a hook that can’t help but make you say Awww as your heart sinks a little further down into your chest: “why would you never let me say my dream came true, it was about you.” This refrain was sung over a series of bassy chords and arpeggios in four-four time, standard meter for most music. A bridge in six-eight spiced things up, providing contrast and variety without sounding out of place. The lyrics fit the song well, feeling gently wishing and whimsical as opposed to dark and depressed. While Alexa’s piece was not as super-optimistic and peppy as the other songs with lyrics, it shared an apparent universal feature of this age bracket’s music in positive energy.
To represent the elementary schoolers’ solo instrumental songs, of which there were a few, I’d like to call attention to Thomas Sulger’s “Rising Sun.” This solo guitar piece was played entirely without a pick, specifically written this way for the concert. It was Thomas’ second composition, his first being a piece he wrote for the show when he found out his school’s talent show was canceled. Despite its name, the song did not have an Asian vibe; quite to the contrary, with his head down and shoulders hunched over his instrument, Thomas played something I could have casually mistaken for the work of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Imagine the intro to “Snow” from the group’s album Stadium Arcadium, slow it down a little, and voila: “Rising Sun.” It sounds crazy to say, but the two pieces used the same type of mildly-melodic arpeggio runs as a body. When I asked him, though, Thomas told me he didn’t listen to the group. Coincidence? I think so, but I’ll get more into that later.
The last elementary piece I want to mention is Christopher Jessup’s solo piano piece Concerto in A Minor. To be perfectly honest, this 5th grader has had more experience with classical music than me. Having studied classical piano since age 5, the kid’s piece frankly exceeds my ability to intelligently analyze in this genre of music. Concerto is an ambitious title, but with cords that traveled across the whole instrument and interlaced melodies, it just about pulled it off. Chris told me that he already enjoys writing music and has written multiple songs. I am not very surprised. You can tell that a combination of skill and practice has enabled him to create a piece that far exceeds the abilities his age would suggest, even with the high bar set by his classmates.
What surprised me most from this age group were the similarities shared between the songs. All the lyrics were in some way uplifting or inspirational. Many used similar runs or chord progressions that have been used many times by pop musicians of recent memory. Is this all coincidence? Partly. My guess, which made me appreciate these kids’ music even more, is this: because these kids are beginning their studies, they write mostly off of what they think sounds right and what doesn’t. They may or may not know what they are doing theoretically or practically, but if a sound works it works. What would these beginners discover? What could they but the most fundamental, archetypal patterns? Basically, what each and every one of these kids is doing is discovering the foundation of Western music through their own experimentation. Should a record company try to pass off some of these riffs, it would be uncreative and weak because they have been recycled a thousand times. But when these kids find out that a root, seventh, sixth, and fifth sound good together in a descending pattern, it is genuine ingenuity. It is innovation and discovery, just as valid and exciting to watch as a master saxophonist soloing well over a complex, dissonant progression.
Anecdotal evidence supports my theory, I have found. When I asked Thomas how he wrote his song, he said, “it just felt right.” A perfectly good answer, but it suggests Thomas wasn’t actively trying to link together chords. Chris wasn’t able to tell me much more than that of his own piece–that he came up with it and his teacher helped him write the notes down. Alexa was most able to tell me about how she wrote her song. She says she was bored staying at her grandparents’ house, so she entertained herself by playing little melodies on a piano. When something sounded good, she put it together with another piece of hers, then came up with hypothetical lyrics to go on top (sorry, the cute story of a schoolyard romance gone wrong was just make-believe and not based off prior experience, or so Alexa claims...). Still, she couldn’t tell me about the individual parts she chose to put in her piece. So chalk these songs up to experimentation, but this ended up working for these kids wonderfully. Who knew eight to 10 year olds had the ability to do even this!
I was disappointed to see only four middle-schoolers perform. This is one thing, though, I shouldn’t be surprised. While no elementary schooler expressed to me any sentiment of stage fright, most being excited to be on stage, middle-schoolers are another breed entirely. I think we all remember that awkward stage of our lives when we wanted nothing more than to look and act like everyone else in search of common-denominator acceptance.
Obviously, uniformity and art don’t go very well together, as art’s very purpose is to make a statement. It takes a brave preteen to get up in front of other people and do something so unique. In this sense, all the more kudos to the four acts that showed their faces. Still, I have a sneaking suspicion that there are other 6-8th graders who are hiding their own songs in their own rooms...
This is just my own psychoanalysis, though. 7th grader Mikey Farren said that he had, “no idea” why there were so few acts from MMS and that he didn’t think any of his friends wrote tunes. For him, the night was about nothing more than having a good time playing his tune for various brass, bass, guitar, and drums called “Funk Junk.” This title, in contrast to “Dream Come True,” tells you just about everything you need to know about the piece. A song that started with a bass line written for piano turned into a full-bodied arrangement with a chord progression and solo section. It was something any jazz group could take, interpret, and make its own. This is not to say that anyone else needs to play it to make the tune work. The group of Mikey’s friends assembled from the MMS jazz band did just fine, putting on a convincing performance.
The show was capped off by seven performances from high schoolers. These performances showed the major progression from music by accidental discovery to projects with a purpose. When you talk to the kids who wrote these songs, they get excited. They have reasons why they chose this note or that, and stories about the idea that the song is trying to express.
Revisiting Zach Heyde and his long history with the concert might just be the best way to show this point. I have not personally seen or heard his earlier performances, but I can assume that around nine years ago when Zach started with the Composer’s Concert, he probably sounded like most of this year’s elementary students. For a while, his pieces would have reflected his progression through his classical lessons. Zach says at around age 13, he started experimenting with jazz and rock to add to his compositions, getting him interested in these genres. This has progressed to a point where he is able to amaze audiences with his tunes like “Finale.” Zach wrote this five-or-so minute epic over the summer, being a fusion of two compositions. He describes the first as a sort of “progressive classical,” inspired by piano greats like Gershwin and Rachmaninov. Next comes a more thunderous B-section, meant to be, “romantic and confessional” in contrast with the first part’s veiled-ness. A third section fuses the two. Zach’s technical skill is unbelievable, and coupled with a mind as talented as his, the combination is potent. He has certainly come a long way with his compositions.
Sophomore Haley Miller’s chamber-arrangement Miss Orlenda might not have been as grab-by-the-throat flashy as Hyde’s, but its story is absolutely fascinating. Haley epitomizes the artist with a message. While quiet and a little shy in person, her music shares such elaborate conceptual tales that one could talk with her about them for hours. Campbell's soup version: in her songs, she finds her voice.
Haley says that she went to camp this past summer and made a pact with herself that she would write a love song. Originally, what she came up with was a vocal piece with lyrics to be sung. A friend came up with a clarinet accompaniment. At some point, though, Haley realized that the clarinet part sounded better on piano, and the vocal melody sounded better on clarinet. Haley has had some experience writing for small orchestral groups before, so she decided to give that a whack for this song.
Here is where the story gets interesting. The original song was the story of a fictional Russian woman, Miss Orlenda, whose husband must goes off to war. First comes sadness, as Miss Orlenda terribly misses her soul mate. She languishes for a while all alone, that is until Mr. Orlenda comes home and all of a sudden there is joy. This is reflected in the music: the beginning is a heavy military march in three-four. Her words for the part were, “punctual and percussion-y.” Next, this mood dissolves into a less serious six-eight section with solos floating around the instrumentation. Towards the end of this section there is a conflict between the violin and piano who play in three-four and the rest of the group who plays in six-eight. Chromatic runs build anticipation. This unconventional section then turns into a joyful conclusion featuring dramatic chords, providing a peaceful resolution.
The middle part is where the story gets murky. I would be lying if I said that each note was chosen to represent a plot event. This part, Haley sort of swerved off from the story and trusted her gut as to what sounded right. She explored her own musical ideas, focusing less on the ups and downs of a stranded lady’s darkest hour. That came after for the middle section. In this sense, the story and song evolved together, complementing each other and creating greater meaning than either one could alone.
This is art. It may be small and humble, but it is truly art. Whether through key, meter, melody, arrangement, or just pure skill, Haley and her classmates are framing unique ideas in unique ways. These kids are happy to share their work, and just as excited to be back next spring.
So if you have the chance, keep your eyes and ears open for next year’s Composers Concert in April. You don’t have to know anyone performing, just come with an open mind. Leave your money and fancy dress at home; seats are free and the atmosphere is laid back. It won’t take up much of your time, maybe 90 minutes tops. And if you go, I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you hear.
Don’t miss the second-part of Chris Janson look into young musical talent featured in the May print issue of Neirad.