March 26, 2023
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Life & Culture

Harmonious celebration pairs literature and music

Writers’ voices echoed through Ithaca College’s Ford Hall as they told personal stories of celebration and triumph through the pieces they chose to read Nov. 4. A small student ensemble used instruments and vocals to help tell the stories through vibrant, ambient sound.

Renowned writers took the stage to present poetry and prose accented by music composed, arranged and performed by music students and recent alumni of the college to celebrate Shirley M. Collado’s inauguration as the college’s ninth president, along with the college’s 125th anniversary.

The event, titled Circle of Fifths after the tool musicians use to understand the relationships among musical keys, focused on the theme of celebration using the power and dominance of the interval of the fifth as a motif. In Western music theory, intervals five notes apart are considered the most powerful sounding.

The Circle of Fifths showcase was the brainchild of A. Van Jordan, Collado’s husband. Van Jordan is a distinguished visiting professor at the college, a professor at the University of Michigan and renowned poet. To help bring his idea to life, Van Jordan invited five prominent writers and friends of his to read their work as part of the performance: Julia Alvarez, poet, novelist and essayist; poet Michael Collier; novelist Mitchell S. Jackson; Akhil Sharma, novelist and short-story writer; and poet Crystal Williams.

Van Jordan said in addition to being a poet, he is also a musician. He said he wanted to bring the two art forms together to celebrate those who have had positive influences on his and Collado’s lives.

“I’m also a struggling trombonist, and so I’m constantly working through the circle of fifths as a practice,” Van Jordan said. “Thinking about bringing these writers to campus with the musicians, it seemed like a great fit. Particularly thinking about five people who have been dominant in my life, and thinking about that dominant fifth and how important it is.”

Though Sharma was unable to make it to the event, Van Jordan read an excerpt from a short story of his titled “Cosmopolitan” on his behalf, and said it felt good to be able to bring Sharma into the space though he could not attend in person.

Van Jordan said though all of these writers are often incredibly busy traveling and sharing their work around the world, they prioritized making it to the celebration. Additionally, he said, they were open-minded about the idea of collaborating with musicians.

“These writers agreed to do this, and we didn’t pay them to do it,” Van Jordan said. “They just came as friends. The idea of bringing them here, telling them, ‘You’re going to meet some musicians once you get here, and we’re going to try this thing.’ The thing that was great was they didn’t question it too much. They just sort of went with the idea of it.”

The small group of musicians included alumni Virginia Maddock ‘17 and Hannah Martin ‘17; seniors Sherley-Ann Belleus and Tristan Jarvis; juniors Jonah Bobo and Malachi Brown and sophomore Dan Yapp. Six School of Music faculty members and Karl Paulnack, dean of the School of Music, contacted creative students in the music program at the end of September asking them to be part of the event, and sharing the works the writers planned to read. The students spent the weeks preceding the concert studying each of the writers’ pieces and brainstorming ideas for compositions. They played their compositions under the readers’ voices, complementing each piece of poetry and prose with ambient music.

Students at Circle of Fifths perform the closing musical number for the show.

Belleus, a vocalist, said the work of interpreting the writing into music was challenging but valuable.

“To get a piece of text and then be like, ‘What is this poem evoking in me?’ and then, ‘How can I use music the way that I like it to bolster that?’ is helpful in our own personal studies to make a storyline for the music we create,” Belleus said.

After faculty contacted the students to take part in the event, they got together, shared ideas and delegated certain pieces to those who felt the strongest about them.

Jarvis, who played bass, said working in a small group was beneficial, as each musician got to work closely with the text.

“I don’t think a lot of us were used to just reading some text and just kind of putting music to that,” Jarvis said. “A lot of us had strong feelings as soon we read some of the text, and then others had absolutely no idea what to do, for some of them.”

The musicians and writers did not come together until the day of the event, quickly running through the pieces just minutes before the doors opened. However, because a lot of the interaction between the musicians and readers was improvisational, the pieces came together in their entirety on the stage as the performance took place. Van Jordan said that he experienced much of the program for the first time during the performance, along with the audience.

“I didn’t really hear it all come together before the actual performance, because so much of it is improvisational,” he said. “We did partial run-throughs, but we never ran through the entire thing until we did it for the audience.”

The writers had very few guidelines on what pieces to present. The only criteria were that they somehow related to the act of celebration, with the idea that celebration means something different to everyone.

Alvarez’s piece, “Spanglish with Mami” is about struggling to maintain one’s identity and culture through the loss of language. The narrator in the piece moves to the U.S. as a child, and finds it difficult to not be able to use her native tongue.

Speaker Julia Alvarez reads her piece, “Spanglish with Mami,” accompanied by students’ music.

“Sister Mary Joseph reprimanded me if she overheard me speaking Spanish to my sisters,” Alvarez said, reading from her short story. “When I tried speaking English, the school bullies taunted me. Spic. Spic.”

As she read, the music the heavy strings created a sense of tension, and the vocalists whispered “Spic, Spic” to coincide with the reading.

Eventually, the narrator resolves to bring Spanish words into English. After the reading concluded the music switched to a much more upbeat tune featuring a Latin-sounding trumpet melody and wooden block percussion.

As the program stated, “For some, celebration may be the joy of winning, for some it may be the gratitude of survival and for some it may be the power of freedom.”

Van Jordan said the triumphant and vibrant mood of the entire weekend inspired the feeling of the event.

“We came in with the idea that we were going to celebrate both the 125th anniversary but also Shirley’s inauguration,” he said. “We came in with that spirit, and we just let go.”

Van Jordan said though the rainbow of cultures represented on the stage was not necessarily intentional, such diversity is a celebration in and of itself.

“I think that celebration is a part of how I live my life in general,” Van Jordan said. “What you find is that when you do say, ‘I’m going out to find the best,’ you can’t help but have a diverse group … We were just thinking about friends of ours and sort of casting that net and trying to find people that we thought of in that light who were strong, dominant figures in our relationship that we wanted to bring to campus.”