November 6, 2012

By Jeremy Manier
Photo by Robert Kozloff

Trumpets rang out at the formal opening of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in October, performing an original composition by Prof. Shulamit Ran that was inspired by the building itself.

"I composed it right after being for the first time at the Logan Center,” says Ran, a Pulitzer-winning composer and the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor of Music. “It was being inside, experiencing the flow, and seeing the way in which one space blended into another, the way in which angles and shapes came together to form a unity. It was very, very exciting.”

Musical inspiration is rarely so direct. Composers often compare their craft to making a new work of architecture, combining the ecstatic joy of creation and the painstaking assembly of a complex structure. For the University of Chicago’s esteemed professors of composition, that work sometimes comes with the added responsibility of creating a piece to celebrate a milestone for the UChicago community.

Ran’s “Logan Promenades” was just the most recent example; last year Augusta Read Thomas, the University Professor of Composition, wrote a violin duo, “double helix,” to mark the grand opening of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library. And Marta Ptaszynska, the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor of Music and the Humanities, wrote “Hymn of the Universe” in 2008 for the rededication of the organ and carillon at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

All three artists say the work of composition requires discipline and often, intense scholarship—a task aided by the scholarly depth of the UChicago Department of Music. But no amount of research can fully explain the mysterious origins of inspiration, Ptaszynska says.

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I will hear the whole structure of a piece,” Ptaszynska says. “And then I have to notate it quickly. These are moments that pass quickly by, like the wind.”

Sounds made by hand

Music has been a source of delight and renewal for Augusta Read Thomas since she was a girl growing up in a large family.

“Music makes me feel better every day,” Thomas says. “It can be a Gregorian chant or a James Taylor ballad. I love to understand how a piece of music works, whether it’s Bach, Beethoven, Charles Mingus, Ella Fitzgerald—any excellent piece that someone made.”

The appetite for creation starts long before putting notes on a page, Thomas believes. “I would say the first thing has to be a kind of energy to be creative. You have to have passion in your stomach to create things.”

Although poetry and other art forms inspire Thomas, she says most of her work is about “music for music’s sake,” pursuing the innate possibilities of different sounds, timbres and instrumental colors. For “double helix,” she envisioned a four-minute exploration of two musical lines that wound around each other. A guiding metaphor was the interplay of a library, which thrives on the work of authors but also has its own life.

“I hoped the audience would hear it as a highly nuanced essay,” Thomas says.

Her grand symphonies require a different approach. Thomas, who was elected this year to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is a prolific orchestral composer, who served as the Mead Composer-in-Residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1997 to 2006. Even for large orchestral works, Thomas drafts all of the parts by hand rather than with commonly used composing software. She says that method helps lend her pieces a personal quality.

“I usually draw maps—a timeline of the piece, the shapes it’s going to take, its harmonic fields,” Thomas says. “If you’re going to build a huge building or cathedral, you can’t just go to the hardware store and start hammering nails. I actually draft the beginning, middle, and end of absolutely every sound. I want to know, what’s the inner life? Where is it going, why is it going there? How does it relate to what comes next, and why? Gestalt is everything to me.”

‘I believe that music matters’

A quotation by Bela Bartok hangs on Shulamit Ran’s office wall: “Competitions are for horses, not artists.”

For Ran, that collegiality includes the embrace of fresh influences for her music.

“Life informs my music in every possible way,” Ran says, “through the people I meet, the sounds I hear, things I see or read, life’s events and passages, its awe and adventure. This feeds into everything I am, and thus everything I compose.”

Some of Ran’s work uses texts that reflect a diversity of influences. For “Ad Sciendam,” a work for organ and chorus that Ran wrote for the University’s 500th Convocation in 2009, she included Hebrew and Latin passages from the Book of Wisdom. She also used a multilingual approach for one of her most intriguing compositional challenges—a commission by the vocal group Chanticleer to write a movement for a Mass.

Told that her assignment would be to compose the Credo for the Mass, she recalls, “I said to them, ‘You realize I’m Jewish, right?’”

With the opening phrase of the Latin Mass’ Credo as a point of departure, she created a trilingual piece in English, Hebrew, and Latin, drawing from Jewish Liturgy and the philosopher Maimonides, as well as texts about the Holocaust and the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I needed to go beyond beautiful texts,” Ran says. “I needed to ask questions, probe faith in the face of the greatest adversity. How privileged I am that I can address, through my music, things that are important for me, that are outside of myself.”

That power of music to unsettle and console offers endless possibilities, Ran says.

“I believe that music matters,” she says. “Music for me has an incredible capacity to uplift, transport, make one think, disturb, engage, at times to entertain, at times to provide catharsis.”

‘It always becomes something more’

Marta Ptaszynska began composing at age 4, and followed a rigorous course of training while growing up in her native Poland. That instilled a broad musical vocabulary that she considers essential to her creative work.

“Many people have a talent but don’t develop their craft,” she says. “And talent without craft is nothing.”

Her ideas for compositions tend to come as a whole, rather than in bits and pieces. “I never start a piece if I don’t know how the piece will end,” she says. “It’s like buying a train ticket without knowing where you’re going.”

Ptaszynska’s nighttime inspirations often come in a flash, but her hurried notes would be meaningless to an unschooled observer.

“I’ll write down a phrase that represents my idea, like ‘A brilliant stroke of glass,’” Ptaszynska says. “It doesn’t mean anything to anyone else, but when I see those words later I hear the sound.”

For her 2008 piece, “Hymn of the Universe,” Ptaszynska adapted the work of the Catholic philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Although she knew from the start what the piece should sound like, she says hearing an actual performance brings her work to life in ways that are invariably surprising.

“The realization of the piece is always much better than what I heard,” Ptaszynska says. “Though I hear the texture, the color of the orchestra in my imagination, it’s when I hear the live orchestral performance that, for me, my music becomes even more rich in sonorities and texture. It always becomes something more.”

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