Greetings from the Music Department! Reflecting on the last time I wrote to you for the newsletter, I’m reminded about the radical changes to our lives brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
I vividly recall a Friday in March 2020 when I received an urgent message from the Provost and Dean of the Faculty indicating that for safety reasons the Amherst Symphony Orchestra concert scheduled for that evening had to be limited to an on-campus audience. Turning away faithful audience members from our surrounding communities was a small harbinger of massive changes to come.
By the beginning of April all of our activities—courses, ensemble rehearsals, individual performance instruction, concerts—had been moved online and nearly all of our students had been sent home to finish the semester remotely. During the remaining weeks of the spring semester and over the summer the College and our department fervently planned for the fall semester. We explored best options for teaching and learning online via Zoom and other platforms, tested emerging platforms for real-time music-making over the Internet, developed safe distancing protocols for making music together indoors in Arms, and more.
In short, we didn’t simply adapt to the new realities of the temporary limitations caused by COVID-19. Instead, we found ways to learn more deeply, to harness new technologies, to build a larger toolkit for teaching and learning that will provide dividends long after the limitations of the pandemic are gone.
Amidst these shifts, we were joined by two visiting faculty in fall 2020. Previously at Harvard University, Dr. Katherine Pukinskis joined us for a two-year position as Valentine Visiting Assistant Professor. An acclaimed composer of vocal music and more, Prof. Pukinskis will teach various composition and musicianship and theory courses and advise composition honors theses while Prof. Eric Sawyer is on leave during spring 2021. Choral conductor, organist, and trumpeter Dr. Noah Horn joined us for the fall semester to direct the Choral Society while Dr. Arianne Abela was on maternity leave. Coincidentally, Drs. Abela and Horn are partners and we’re very excited to celebrate the new addition to their family!
While the hallways of Arms Music Center might be quieter than normal as we work and study remotely and practice safe social distancing in the building, we have nevertheless doubled down on our educational mission and dedication to our students. Over the last summer, Buckley Recital Hall was outfitted with new technology to allow high definition video and audio live streaming of concerts via the Internet. We expect to live stream various student and Music at Amherst concerts and other events during spring semester 2021 and far into the future. Visit our website for details and the live stream link.
In 2021-2022, we expect to present our postponed centennial commission and celebration of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which will feature all three of our performance programs—choral, jazz, orchestra—and we expect to participate in various programming celebrating the College’s Bicentennial.
It’s a thrill to work with such passionate and exceptional students, faculty colleagues whose research set the benchmark in our respective fields, and a dedicated staff that provides the support and know-how to make us all thrive. On behalf of the department, I offer my deepest thanks for your support, and I hope that you’re staying safe and optimistic during our trying times. Please don’t hesitate to reach out. We hope you will visit us as soon as possible!
Associate Professor and Chair of Music
In June 2020 Professor Klara Móricz’s book, In Stravinsky’s Orbit: Reactions to Modernism in Russian Paris, was published by University of California Press. A Russian translation of the book is planned for 2021. In November Móricz presented a paper, “Crossing Impenetrable Borders: Leningrad’s Sonic Siege Diaries,” at the virtual conference of the American Musicological Society.
Móricz has spent her sabbatical in the fall of 2020 working on her next project, the biography of Arthur Vincent Lourié. She has been recently awarded a Faculty Research Award to conduct further research on Lourié’s life. The proposed American chapter of the biography was selected by Amherst College to be one of the proposals forwarded by the College to be considered for a National Endowment for the Humanities stipend. Professor Móricz has been invited to give a virtual talk at the Moscow Conservatory in March 2021.
In July 2020 Professor David Schneider assumed the role of Dean of the Class of 2021 in the Office of Student Affairs. In this role he helps students in the current senior class navigate academic challenges and make use of the many resources for support provided by the College. During the pandemic this has involved numerous Zoom calls with students as nearby as Amherst’s campus and as far afield as Albania, China, India, and Norway.
In fall 2020 Professor Schneider introduced a new course on the history of the symphony that examined both the musical genre of the symphony and the institution of the orchestra over its four-hundred-year history. New to this curriculum at Amherst was a focus on the many contributions to the repertoire of the symphony by historically under-represented groups and the challenges to American symphony orchestras in the time of COVID.
Schneider has also continued his work on central European music and musicians with a publication on the American years of the composer, conductor and pianist Ernst von Dohnányi in the journal Music and Letters, and recently completed the liner notes for UMass Professor of Violin Elizabeth Chang’s Albany Records recording of music by Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, and Arnold Schoenberg.
In order to keep everyone safe, while keeping music alive this past semester, the Amherst College Music Department transitioned to a broadcast environment. At the beginning of the pandemic, building manager Ted Keyes did tremendous forward-thinking work, securing and overseeing the install of a new video system for Buckley, which the department has since been using in this unprecedented time to stream live events and previously recorded concerts. We learned how to handle video through our new Vimeo environment, and found that Zoom works surprisingly well for masterclasses, as students stood in their tidy dorm rooms with their instruments, or phoned it in from as far away as Boston.
Ensemble directors got very creative in imagining how to make music together, even across great distance. The Orchestra prerecorded and then broadcast two concerts. Choral Society offered hybrid events, where, on the one hand, masked performers sang together but physically distanced in Buckley, and on the other they created virtual choirs for which they had to spend many hours stitching recordings together. And the Jazz program presented all live performances from Buckley, where we marveled to see wind players blowing through slits in their masks and with their instruments under wraps. Well done, everyone!
Music at Amherst’s first performance of the year was live-streamed from Regina Carter’s home where she was joined by Brandon McCune, piano; Chris Lightcap, bass; and Alvester Garnett, drums. We really miss seeing everyone together in the hall and had a chance to imagine new ways to connect to one another. One such success has been that Amherst’s own music department faculty are graciously taking turns hosting these virtual events, with Darryl Harper leading a Q&A for Regina Carter’s September performance, Mark Lane Swanson chatting for us with pianist Conrad Tao, and Eric Sawyer talking with the Calidore String Quartet about their process and artistry. Thanks to everyone’s creativity and care, we are learning new things, even as we appreciate more keenly all we had before the pandemic.
We look forward to learning more in the Spring when our students return. Music Department concerts can be found on the College event calendar. Here is the listing for M@A concerts.
In the spirit of making lemonade from lemons, these concerts can now all be viewed by those of you around the county and the world: You can tune in to our live stream player here.
Happy viewing, and take good care.
During fall term 2020, the Amherst Symphony Orchestra and Chamber music programs, led by Senior Lecturer Mark Lane Swanson, were proud and thrilled to be able to present two full-length pre-recorded concerts, streamed on the Music Department's new Live Event page. In accordance with the strictest health protocols, thirty-five on-campus/socially distanced first-year and sophomore classical instrumentalists rehearsed, performed, and recorded outdoors in tents, in small groups in Arms Music Center, and alone in practice rooms (contributing individual "tracks" to composite works professionally assembled by Orchestra President Emerita Helena Burgueño ’18). Mr. Swanson provided historical and biographical commentary during these programs, and both concerts were edited for seamless continuity by ASO Graduate Assistant Cameron Chandler ’20. During fall term Amherst student artists performed and received expert coaching in live-streamed "virtual" master classes given by pianist Conrad Tao and the Los Angeles-based Calidore Quartet.
In its October 10 concert, “Welcome to the Class of 2024,” the ASO celebrated Beethoven's 250th birthday year with an all-Beethoven program, and in its October 31 concert it commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, with a program of works by ten leading women composers. During winter term 2021, when juniors and seniors join first-years on campus, the musicians will perform unjustly neglected works by masterful Black concert composers in a semester themed “Black Music Matters.” Chamber musicians will also perform for and receive virtual coaching by the Juilliard Quartet.
Despite the closure of concert halls, Prof. Eric Sawyer’s music managed some appearances in streamed performances, including his song Silver Wings, performed on soprano Kristen Watson’s performance on the Late Night at Emmanuel music series. The performance can be viewed online, with the song beginning at 20:20.
I was happy, under all the sheltering and social distancing requirements, to have the chance to do a broadcast performance with Chilean vocalist Claudia Acuña and her quartet. It was an interesting setup, as large screens were mounted at the foot of the stage so that we could see the audience reacting to the music—the best I've seen for bringing the audience into the virtual space. I also contributed a track to Mister G's children's album, Children of the World, as part of the Global Citizen Ensemble, a network of musicians in 14 countries and five continents.
I taught the first-year seminar "Thinking Through Improvisation" in which students examined improvisation across the disciplines of theater, dance, neuroscience, literature, philosophy, and of course music. Before the course began, one student asked how an improvisation course would work when our in-person contact would be so limited. I told them I wasn't sure, but what better premise could there be for an improvisation course? The students came to the course with the passionate curiosity I have grown used to seeing from Amherst students, and this time, mixed with a buoyant optimism that was inspiring to be around. We came up with an answer to that student's question too. Love this job!
First and foremost, I send my hopes for health and well-being to all Friends of Music at Amherst College. The pandemic curtailed my spring research plans in Estonia during a sabbatical, but I have managed to stay on top of editorial duties at the Yale Journal of Music & Religion and the Journal of the American Musicological Society amid the demands of parenting remote elementary schoolers and shifting to remote work.
My co-edited book Arvo Pärt: Sounding the Sacred (Fordham) was published this year, and another edited volume Studying Congregational Music: Key Issues, Methods, and Theoretical Perspectives (Routledge) is due out in February. Returning to teaching in the fall with all the demands and unknowns of the remote format was an unexpected joy, and the challenges of rethinking pedagogy brought with them a renewed sense of urgency and community in teaching. I look forward to a moment when we can reunite in classrooms and performance spaces with a renewed appreciation for all that it means to learn and make music together.
The students involved in the study and performance within our Jazz Performance Program were able to produce music on a high level throughout this year 2020. Things were “normal” for us as the Spring ’20 semester started out. We enjoyed a wonderful Jazz-based thesis concert from Cameron Chandler ’20 (who has returned to Amherst as a Department GA for this current academic year). The Jazz Ensemble gave a world-premiere performance of Trying Out, the 2020 McBride ’59 Jazz Commission piece composed by NYC-based jazz composer Jihye Lee. Her self-named ensemble shared the Buckley stage that evening and wowed all of us in attendance with their lush, energetic renditions of other compositions by Jihye Lee. And the Jazz@Schwemm’s spring component started off in early March with a great trio performance by Jen Allen (Hartford-based pianist) and was followed by two of our student Jazz Combos.
Then came the shutdown and student departures. Since March, we have been guided and aided by our department members, Prof. Robinson as our chair, and members of the administration in our efforts to return to music-making in person. This has been a significant challenge, and in relation to our jazz musicians, has made a palpable dent in the way we would normally operate in terms of rehearsals, rehearsal spaces, and performances.
We created the ability to have in-person rehearsals (30 minutes allotted to a single rehearsal space, 9-10 person limit) while engaging technology (software such as Jamulus and Zoom) to allow others not in these spaces to rehearse with our students simultaneously. We employed these apps on our laptop computers, used wired headphones, wired ethernet connections, and USB Microphones in our efforts to allow for these real-time rehearsals to exist and prosper. It was a huge learning curve for us all, one that involved patience and technical input from many, and we are grateful for the chances we have had to continue to make music. We re-designed our Jazz@Schwemm’s series to take place in Arms Music Room 7 and presented our students in this role. We even had a chance to meet NYC-based saxophonist Alexa Tarantino on a Zoom call as part of our series. We used Buckley to present the Jazz Ensemble and these combos in performance, and have been able to stream these as live events.
Throughout the Fall semester, we have been bolstered by the energy and good graces of the students. They have consistently shown their desire to spend as much time in-person as will be prudent, and they found other ways to meet, support each other, and be allies in the making of music. I conclude this post with a pic [CS1] of what became a regular series of weekend night performance on the space above the entrance to the dining services at Valentine. Gabbi Moore ’23 (bass, vocalist) curated a series of jam sessions in October that allowed for our students to come together and play outdoors (sometimes they forged ahead in rather cold temperatures!) in a safe environment. More importantly, these sessions allowed our incoming first-years to meet many of our other veteran musicians and they certainly created some good music in this process.
We look forward to a future with a robust ability to get back to our more normal approaches, while perhaps finding new opportunities, such as this Jam Session routine, to embrace.
In September 2020, Amy Coddington signed a contract with the University of California Press for her book How Hip Hop Became Hit Pop. The book, still very much in-progress, is projected to be published in the fall of 2023, and she’ll be finishing the first draft of the manuscript while on leave during the academic year 2021-2022. An expansion of her dissertation, the book explores how rap broke through to a white mainstream audience in the 1980s and 1990s through programming on commercial radio stations.
She is very thankful for the opportunity to work with a number of students on the project through the Gregory S. Call Academic Internship program; students have collected and compiled a large amount of new data for the book over the past three years. In early 2021, the Journal of the Society for American Music will be publishing a piece of this research—a preview, of sorts, of the book—entitled “A ‘Fresh New Music Mix’ for the 1980s: Broadcasting Multiculturalism on Crossover Radio.”