Undergraduate Composers Share Music, Selves

On Feb. 22 at Paine Hall, the Harvard Composers Association presented “New Works,” a concert in collaboration with the Juventas New Music Ensemble premiering original pieces from undergraduate classical composers. The six selected Harvard composers were Amir Bitran ‘16, Maxwell P. Phillips ‘15, Andre T. Nguyen ‘16, Jake H. Wilder-Smith ‘16, Sam Wu ‘17 and Alexander B. Zaloum ‘16. A short 45-minute concert, the event was run with the help of Juventas Ensemble artistic director Lidiya Yankovskaya and managing director Tammy Lynch.

Wu, who hails from China, premiered “Callisto,” a piece meant to depict the Jovian moon. He was inspired to write about this piece after watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” and calls it a “light-hearted, fun piece” in contrast to his usual compositions.Callisto” definitely fits this description, opening with a decorous flute and clarinet melody with short marcato notes by the cello underneath. In the concert’s program, Wu writes that the various colors and textures attempt “to paint an impression of the cratered surface of the moon.” Although without the same grandiosity as “The Planets” by Holst [FC], it depicts a “lighter” version of outer space. Wu succeeds in presenting the smaller moon orbiting around Holst’s “Jupiter.”


“Imagine a little duckling waltzing alone,” Nguyen says about his piece “Waltzing Duckling,” a short piece for flute, violin and cello. The title evokes a dolce, whimsical song filled with short,  rhythmic notes, but the actual composition sounds nostalgic and borderline sad. This duckling dances alone to a waltz that is usually danced in pairs. “People at Harvard care more about intellectual musical beauty than aesthetic musical beauty. I don’t care whether my music is intellectual or not,” Nguyen says. Nguyen, an applied math concentrator, says the music he dislikes most is atonal music composed using mathematical algorithms. “Math is beautiful and music is beautiful but it’s like milk tastes good and orange juice tastes good. If you make a really good combination it might taste good, but most of the time you wouldn’t want to mix the two.”

Nguyen’s ideals of aesthetic beauty are taken to an extreme by Zaloum’s most developed composition to date, “Never Forgotten,” a piece for piano, cello, and violin. Zaloum began writing music in 7th grade for a school contest and is now in his eighth year of composing . “I gave the piece a title because you have to give it a title, but I didn’t have something in mind when I was composing the piece,” he says. “If I had to say, though, it’s like a journey. It starts with a pain or tragedy of some sort development is dealing with that pain then climax in the cry out to that surrender.” The climax, which Zaloum claims is the highlight of the piece, is a loud outburst from the violin and piano with the cello playing long notes underneath it, followed by a transition into a happier, lighter section. This piece was the easiest to follow of the six in the program—perhaps bordering on too accessible—with a melody suitable for a dramatic scene of a Hollywood movie.

The finale of the concert was a three-movement piece by Bitran, although only two movements were performed during the concert. Trained as a classical pianist, Bitran began composing in 2005. The driving force behind his artistic impulse is his American, Jewish, and Latin-American heritage, as well as his musical family background. The first movement, “Rhapsody,” is mainly based on a pair of melodies Bitran created in 2008; the two fantastical, folkloric, mystical melodies are put in complex contexts such as instances when the pianist strikes the piano strings with her hand and uses unusual time signatures. The second movement, “Night Music” evolves from a lullaby-like rocking rhythm accompanying a singing melody. “The piece is not yet finished,” Bitran says, “There will be a third movement soon.” In the future, Bitran will be composing a piece for the Collegium, where he now sings, and his selected orchestral work “Kedushah” will be recorded by the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

When asked to finish the sentence “composing is…,” each of the composers pauses for at least three minutes. After shaking his head and laughing nervously at the stress of capturing the perfect answer, Zaloum responds, “composing is sharing a piece of my soul.” Unravelling musical excerpts simply from ideas that float in their heads, these composers share an intimate picture, their personal reflection of the world.