The two weeks that follow Thanksgiving are called “Intensive Arts” around here. Academic classes are suspended and the students focus entirely on their chosen art form. In the case of Music students, that means lessons, masterclasses, rehearsals, seminars and performances. I gave my composition students two lessons a week and a bunch of hard deadlines. A few of them enrolled in “Dance-a-Day,” in which participating composers were paired off with choreographers for five days to create brief dance pieces on assigned “topics.” A topic could be a photograph, a series of adjectives, or an abstraction. It was a great exercise in going from concept to execution to performance in less than three hours.
We also had a couple of seminars. For one of them, our upperclassmen and grad students were assigned to choose a favorite piece and present it to the rest of the composers. Alicia Willard, a college junior, chose a pair of Mendelssohn songs. Enlisting the assistance of a few friends, she presented us with a talk-show format, in which she played Felix Mendelssohn being interviewed by the host. Another C3, Ted Oliver, was Fanny Mendelssohn, sparking a lively debate, complete with Strangelove accents, about who wrote what.
Favorite line: “Actually, I am rather fond of songs about pain.”
How do you top that? Our next seminar was with world-renowned conductor John Mauceri, whose scholarly interests and areas of expertise are wide-ranging. One subject with which he has particularly strong associations is music for film. He focused on the work of Max Steiner, the Brahms-Mahler protégé who practically invented underscoring. Mauceri took us back 80 years, when sound film was in its infancy and studios were figuring they could scale back on their music budgets, since dialogue could now be synchronized with image. Dracula and Frankenstein were two enormously popular horror films in 1931 without a note of music, beyond the credits (Dracula’s credits are accompanied by – believe it or not – a few choice bars from Swan Lake). When RKO decided to make King Kong in 1933, they still had Max Steiner under contract, and he was instructed by the studio to find pre-existing music for the title sequence. But the director, Merian C. Cooper, told Steiner to compose music for the whole film on the sly, and the results were, in the film medium, unprecedented. Most of the fundamental techniques we still associate with film music were invented in the six-week period Steiner worked up the score.
Mauceri, who is UNCSA’s Chancellor, delivered all of this information, and far more, in his characteristically charismatic manner, blending wit with passion and erudition. I asked him to give this presentation because Steiner gives us an answer to a perennial question faced by all artists, and no more so than now: how do we take our training and heritage, passed down through generations, and apply it to current media and technology?
With a smidgen of imagination, we can always find an answer.