Music Composition: Covid Studies

Students with Professor Adam Schoenberg in an Oxy music studio

In music, an étude is known as “a study,” where each piece often focuses on a specific technique or exercise.

During the Spring 2021 semester, when Oxy faculty and students engaged in remote teaching and learning, Associate Professor of Music Adam Schoenberg challenged his composition students to reflect on their time during the pandemic and how they might translate that into a piano étude. Schoenberg then partnered with friend and collaborator, GRAMMY-winning pianist and Steinway Artist Nadia Shpachenko, to perform these works, dubbed COVID STUDIES.

Brendan Kim ’21: Thank You for the Company

When I initially learned the prompt for the semester, I was surprised to find out how quickly I latched on to the first idea that came into my head. From the start, I knew that I wanted to compose a piece that captured the monotony of quarantine and how the days, weeks and months began blurring themselves into the same grating melody.

The work begins with this melody, which is quiet and unsure. As the piece progresses, it steadily becomes more and more unhinged, as if to reflect the anxiety and uncertainty that we all experienced early on in the pandemic. Eventually, the melody completely degenerates into a flurry of dissonant tritone figures before abruptly shifting to the “company” portion of the piece, as referenced in the title. This more sentimental motive, hinting at the music of Charles Ives, represents the loved ones who kept us company through this time, either through their physical or virtual presence. As this section subsides, the piece returns to a distorted variation of the original melody, which further devolves into a tempest of minor tonality and captures the surrealness of living through the chaos that was 2020.

The piece closes with a reprise of both the company and original melody, but never quite resolves due to an additional tritone modification. With a month and a half of this year remaining, this is my personal take on conveying a sort of musical “To be continued...?” Harmony or discord, which will prevail? Only time will tell.

Olivia Oosterhout ’21: The Movement

The Movement, written for two pianos, pays respect to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. There is a history deeply rooted in the United States of white people stealing and appropriating traditionally Black music. As a white composer, it is incredibly important that I give credit where credit is due to show appreciation for the Black artists who have pioneered so much of the music we hear today.

The piece’s main theme uses the pentatonic scale, inspired by the tunings of many West African musical instruments including the kora and balafon. It is played mostly on black keys, showcasing the F♯ major pentatonic scale. The piece also incorporates metrically juxtaposing lines as an example of cross-beat or cross-rhythm, which is the principal element in many Sub-Saharan and West African music traditions. Philosophically, cross-beats can symbolize the challenging moments and emotional stress that People of Color face every day. Playing cross-beats while fully grounded in the main beats, prepares them for maintaining their life-purpose while unrelentingly dealing with daily microaggressions and institutionalized racism.

The rhythms also represent the very fabric of life itself; they are an embodiment of the people, symbolizing interdependence in all human relationships. Additionally, the work contains many jazz compositional techniques, and many sections within the piece allude to famous Black composers such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Scott Joplin, and Florence Price. Jazz, originating from African American culture, is characterized by the use of seventh chords, harmonic extensions, polyrhythms, chromaticism, call and response, modal mixture, and improvisation.

What makes this piece unique is that there are two scores: one written in a typical format, and the other shaped as a graphic score. The graphic portion spells “BLM” with the music, and provides text with information regarding the traditionally Black musical elements that I’m borrowing. The piece acknowledges and thanks many of the great Black composers and musicians, whose stories have been erased and later rewritten. I take inspiration from them, accredit their feats, and bring my own voice to the piece.