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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, May 27, 2024

Music department concert showcases innovative compositions featuring cactus, ladle, bike pump

Students and faculty alike shared original compositions around the theme of ‘unexpected partnerships.’


Granoff Music Center is pictured on Dec. 5, 2022.

The Department of Music at Tufts presented an installment of its “Tufts Composers” series in the Distler Performance Hall on Oct. 19. Titled “Might as Well, Now That We’re Back,” the variety concert was curated by Professor of Music John McDonald and featured pieces by McDonald, guest composer Julia Werntz, faculty guest composer Stephan Pennington, faculty composer and alumnus Sid Richardson, alumni Jason Coleman and Yasaman Ghodsi and eight current students.

McDonald explained that while “Tufts Composers” is a running series, this concert was particularly special because it brought together many members of the music department community and showcased the innovative, experimental ways they make music.

McDonald himself performed a composition involving a piano and an “amplified cactus” — a golden barrel cactus named Bob, to be exact. The cactus, hooked up to an amplifier, produces different pitches when McDonald plays the bristles. 

“This [cactus] has grown quite a bit since I got it, so the pitches change as it grows,” he said.

His composition revolved around the interplay between the cactus and the piano, two instruments that “thrive on their contrast,” according to McDonald.

“They have a little dialogue,” he explained.

In one of his music classes, McDonald is exploring the concept of “unexpected partnerships” with his students. The prompt inspired senior Jimmy Wang’s contribution to the concert.

Wang, a senior studying music, sound and culture, performed an original piece that made use of a kitchen ladle and a bike pump to move water in front of a microphone, producing naturalistic percussion sounds.

Wang told the Daily that he was inspired to create this composition after visiting Walden Pond.

“I was sitting near the pond and hearing the voices and sounds coming around me in a natural environment and observing water, how the waves and insects and sunlight … worked with each other,” he said. “I was just sitting there, imagining the soundscape.”

Another part of Wang’s composition involved two musicians playing a piano in a non-traditional way, using the pedals, keys and strings inside the instrument to create a percussive sound.

“This was my idea of unexpected partnership in music performance,” Wang said. “Not only about using different operators to create different sounds, but also, you have to cooperate … to create a percussion sound.”

Richardson, a graduate of the Department of Music who has returned as a faculty composer, had a section of the concert dedicated to him, titled “Welcome Back, Sid Richardson.” Richardson spoke to how the department has evolved since his time as a student 13 years ago.

“The department … has been rebranded as ‘Music, Sound, and Culture,’ which I think is very interesting,” Richardson said. “The scope has been widened in a way that I hope reflects the diversity of interest that you would expect in the Tufts student population.”

The “Tufts Composers” series will continue with events on Nov. 2 and Nov. 17. McDonald plans to reprise the cactus piece and promised other non-traditional “unexpected partnerships” at future concerts.

“One person is writing for clarinet and wooden bowls,” he said. “Someone else is doing a tuning fork with piano.”