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Fresh Ink highlights inspiring work from student composers

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 I’ve always wanted to be a great composer, but, in all my efforts, I’ve never been much more than a dilettante. Whenever I hear original work, especially great original work, I can feel the ugliness of envy lurking in my gut. It has been my experience, however, that if a work is truly beautiful, even my natural bitterness cannot stop the elation of my soul that gorgeous music provides.

Luckily, Fresh Ink, an event held on April 30 that showcased student composers, provided me with plenty of beauty in a variety of forms. There were a couple of pieces in particular that transported me into a contemplative realm that made me want to cry, compose and philosophize.

The first phenomenal piece was “Poème Mélodique” by Anna Koopman ’20. In the program, the piece was described as an exploration of color, sound and shape – this was accomplished and thensome. “Poème Mélodique” is written for harp and trumpet, an unorthodox duo, but by God, it works. The harp, played by Koopman, employed many a spooky, opaque, bouncy, luminous, melancholy arpeggio. The trumpet, played by Steven Garcia ’20, was at times triumphant, at other times submissive, at times flamboyant, at other times shy. It danced with the same elegance that the harp did. I think this was due in equal parts to the brilliant writing of Koopman, and the pure musicality of Garcia’s playing. The piece was a journey, and the sounds Koopman used really did convey shapes and colors. It is indicative of the skill of a composer when intention aligns with outcome. 

The next phenomenal piece was a revolution and perhaps the most beautiful and important work of art I have consumed so far at St. Olaf. “Spill” by Jamie Alexander Koffler ’18, is an exploration of falling objects for trumpet, bass trombone, found objects and piano. This was certainly not your traditional piece of music. Rather than play written notes, or even improvise over a set of chords, “Spill” has the performers, repeatedly make things fall. The box of found objects was picked up and dropped more than I could count. The trumpet would start at a pitch and fall. The bass trombone would start at a pitch and fall. Trumpet and trombone mutes were stood up and then kicked over. This all happened over and over and over again. The most disturbing aspect of “Spill” was not the fact that pitch or harmony or rhythm were not used traditionally, it was the repetition of falling. This was more than a motif. “Spill” does not utilize falling, “Spill” is falling. The audience was quite puzzled and amused by the endless falling – that was until the purge. At the climax of the piece, the bass trombone player put down his trombone, put his finger down his throat and vomited into a bucket. The audience gasped and wailed. This moment was brilliant and beautiful for me. I do not know if it was Koffler’s intention, but I see “Spill” as a commentary on the fallen nature of St. Olaf and society in general. The sole reaction of the audience up until the purge was to scratch their heads and chuckle at the falling because it did not conform with how we think music should work. What fools we can be. We see what is different as some kind of offshoot. Some kind of joke. Rather than enjoy the falling, rather than live the falling, rather than understand the falling, we ran from it. All until the purge came, and we were forced back into seriousness. “Spill” as a whole is unusual, but I understand now that what is unusual is not a blight upon proper form or existence or ideal, it is instead its own form, existence, and ideal. It is up to us to live undivorced from the unusual and make decisions about it. I applaud Koffler for providing me with this epiphany, whether intentionally or unintentionally. 

I am inspired to compose again, and perhaps one day I’ll be more than a dilettante.  

irwin2@stolaf.edu