St. Olaf College | News

The sound of research


Erika Malpass ’19 had weekly meetings with Dr. Timothy Mahr (left) to discuss progress of the composition piece. Here Malpass shows Mahr a freshly typed score.

What does summer research actually sound like? The clatter of laboratory equipment or a flurry of keystrokes might come to mind at first. But, with thoughts springing from her fingers to the piano keys, music composition major Erika Malpass ’19 shows that research is meant to be heard.

As part of the Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program, Malpass worked with Professor of Music Timothy Mahr ’78 to compose a piece that the St. Olaf Band will perform in Spring 2019.

The college’s CURI program provides opportunities for St. Olaf students from all academic disciplines to gain an in-depth understanding of a particular subject by working closely with a St. Olaf faculty member in a research framework.

Professor Emeritus of Art A. Mac Gimse approached Mahr, who is the conductor of the St. Olaf Band, with the idea of creating a music piece to accompany the unveiling of his new sculpture and his poem, both of which draw inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

In order to artistically communicate the breadth and depth of King’s impact to as many people as possible, Gimse felt it necessary to approach the project from varying angles. With Malpass’ composition piece and Gimse’s poem and sculpture, “it becomes an interdisciplinary presentation,” says Mahr. “So if the poem doesn’t speak to you, maybe the sculpture does. And if neither of those speak to you, maybe the music does.”

Malpass’ piece will be comprised of four sections to mimic the four verses of Gimse’s poem, titled “Out of a Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope.” The 50th anniversary of King’s assassination ā€” April 4, 2018 ā€” sparked this vision to artistically deal with heavy topics such as social justice and racism to celebrate his accomplishments.

At the piano in Professor of Music Timothy Mahr’s office, Erika Malpass ’19 makes some adjustments to her handwritten score.

Malpass, the second student to work with Gimse, explains that this project is not your typical summer college research. Nevertheless, she has taken on a large task. “It is research in that you have to do study of the ensembles, study of the other works for the ensemble, and use all the analysis of the poem. And it is to create a project based on that research,” says Malpass.

Prior to beginning the creative process necessary for composing, Malpass became a bookworm, burying herself in stacks of library books on King. In addition to putting together her own analysis of Gimse’s poem, she also listened to a range of composers and researched band instruments and repertoire.

Then she began tickling the piano keys, finding compelling musical ideas to translate her research into an audible piece. Her overflowing folder of handwritten sheet music slowly became ordered as she figured out transitions, and ordering of sections, and which instruments play what and when. It all adds up to a well-informed piece of music that captures the urgency of social justice.

To furnish her piece with the right movement and energy, Malpass took even the smallest details into consideration. “She had me recite the poetry so she actually had a sense of the verbal cadence in each stanza, with different grammatical structures, including repetitions or refrains,” explains Gimse.

“It’s a monumental task physically just to create the score. In an overture of five minutes duration, there are usually 20,000-30,000 marks in the score, and each one of those is a decision. This will be a more complex piece, so there might 30,000-40,000 decisions that she’ll have to make,” says Mahr.

Erika Malpass ’19 paging through her mass of sheet music overflowing from her trusty folder.

Primarily being a violinist, Malpass has quickly had to familiarize herself with band instruments, such as wind and brass, an opportunity not readily available in composition courses. “This work has a much larger architecture than assignments in composition classes ā€¦ This is just a deeply broadening experience,” Mahr says.

“The instruments just function completely differently, and so writing for them is completely different than writing for piano or violin, which is what I’m more familiar with. That’s another part of the research: ‘How does this work?’, ‘What can I write?’, ‘What are they really good at?’, and ‘What do they sound like doing this or that?'” says Malpass.

Mahr emphasizes that “it is important to have a CURI project within the arts. Research is asking the big questions: ‘What if?’, ‘How?’, ‘Why?’ In the music composition world, it is the same thing. What if we use these kinds of instruments? How might it affect the listener if we use this technique? It is a very personalized process. It’s her music the whole way.”

“It is such a privilege to work with the massively talented Erika, and I’m pleased that Dr. Mahr finds this to be a worthwhile project,” says Gimse.