Article Image
Brenda Huang / Senior Staff Illustrator


[Matthew Lucia]: How do we encourage the pursuit of performing arts in an era when the most basic forms of social contact put lives at risk? The coronavirus pandemic has drastically affected Columbia’s performing arts groups, scattering students across different corners of the world, away from campus in Morningside Heights. Facing shaky audio connections, malfunctioning shared sound, and frozen screens, Columbia’s musical composers have especially struggled to make the best of this situation, but nevertheless have emerged with original sonic masterpieces.

Columbia’s Advanced Composition seminar is usually a semester-long course in which students compose an eight- to 12-minute piece in collaboration with a world-renowned chamber music group. At the end of the course, students sit in on live rehearsals with the group in preparation for a live concert showcasing the final composed works.

Last semester, I took the seminar taught by professor Zosha Di Castri and met five other like-minded composers looking to develop their musical voices even through isolation. This semester, Di Castri, affectionately referred to as “Zosha,” hand-picked the Mivos Quartet to premiere the students’ works for smaller subgroups of the quartet.

However, due to University policies, in the fall, the seminar had to be taught completely virtually. Workshops typically conducted using printed drafts and colored pens were now conversations behind a Zoom screen. Masterclasses in which guest musicians could display amazing spectral textures now only resonated in Zoom’s compressed sound through my computer speakers. The final concert turned into a listening party of the pre-recorded performances on Zoom. However, despite the difficult circumstances, we built a community and created our own genuinely inspired compositions.

In this Ear episode, five out of six of the students in Columbia’s fall 2020 Advanced Composition seminar, myself included, speak about their virtually isolated experiences and how they created alternative methods to bond over their common love for music. They share with us the devotion to their work and their struggles throughout the composition process.

[Music: “Portrait of a Loose Thread”]

[Nicolas Duran]: I’m Nicolas Duran, Columbia College class of 2021, so a senior. The title of the piece that I wrote for Zosha’s seminar was “Portrait of a Loose Thread.”

I’ve taken the music theory track and I took 20th Century Music, which is kind of a composition class but not really. What I was expecting to get out of it, I think, was just being able to work with Zosha Di Castri. I wrote a paper on her work a year ago now. And I was just like, ‘She’s so cool!’ Even the more that I wrote music about her, I was like—or her music; I wrote about her music—I was like, I would like to attend the class with her. And I don’t really compose. Most of what I do is I work with my acapella group and I do stuff with musical theater. I’ve never really composed a long-form classical or contemporary classical piece, as in this that we did in the seminar. So I was expecting a new experience.

I didn’t want to graduate from Columbia not having composed some contemporary classical work. It was alluring that we got to compose a long-form, something longer than my usual pieces. And like I said, I’m really not of this classical music world. I think it came across in the class also—I do not know any of the composers and it’s good. It’s good music. I liked it a lot.”

The themes of the piece are a bit of everything—a bit of feeling mentally worn down and like a loose thread unraveling. That’s part of where the loose thread comes from. I started out trying to emulate this composer that I read about at the end of quarantine. I think it naturally gets reflected in your work, whether or not you’re setting out to write a COVID piece. It’s starting to be more normal, but it was a crazy time.

[Matthew]: Here’s a section of Nicholas Duran’s “Portrait of a Loose Thread” for violin and cello.

[Music: “Portrait of a Loose Thread”]

If you are interested in listening to “Portrait of a Loose Thread” or some of Duran’s other works, including a lo-fi Ratatouille piece, he has a SoundCloud under the name Nicolas Rico Duran.

[Music: “Full Fathom Two”]

[Forrest Eimold]: Hi. I’m Forrest Eimold. I’m a junior in the dual program between Columbia University and the Juilliard School. And this past fall in Advanced Composition here at Columbia, I wrote a piece called ‘Full Fathom Two,’ for two violins and electronics.

Of course, again, there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction. I guess because I was writing a piece that was as consciously as possible trying to respond to the Zoom environment, it actually made sense to me that all the Zoom quirks that came with rehearsing the piece would follow. So in a way, I feel fortunate that it was able to be an asset for me, though I respect that many other situations that couldn’t be for others.”

I guess for me, the question becomes, ‘Is there any other option during this time?’ to which I would answer, ‘No,’ because even if someone doesn’t endeavor to write a COVID piece, if they’re writing it after March 2020, through the present moment and for probably many months after this point, it is de facto a COVID piece. I also feel, though, that the subjects of COVID pieces, like you said, a lot of them having to do with isolation and things like that, aren’t new either. In the same way that the COVID pandemic hasn’t really presented anyone with new problems beyond intensifications of what we’ve already been dealing with as a society, right. We’re here in this moment of intense restriction and isolation because of decisions that people in power have made. Even though, of course, I’ve written a COVID piece, I hope it can speak to issues beyond this time. Or maybe, in a better sense, COVID time is just a fragment of the issues that we as a society are trying to confront, and have been trying to confront, this whole millennium.

During these times, it’s really hard to share any kind of experience with another person without a very immediate danger. And that’s very obvious now because of a physical virus that we all have to protect ourselves and our community from, but I hope that in the future, I can still keep that sense, because again, I don’t think this is a new issue. I think that if my music can continue to enact just the sheer difficulty of synchronizing with another human being, that what I’ve learned from this time will be helpful.

[Matthew]: Without further ado, here’s a section of Forrest Eimold’s “Full Fathom Two” for two violins and electronics.

[Music: “Full Fathom Two”]

If you are interested in listening to “Full Fathom Two” or more of Eimold’s music after what you just heard, Eimold has a YouTube channel and a SoundCloud both under his name, F-O-R-R-E-S-T E-I-M-O-L-D.

[Music: “Catharsis”]

[Max Lu]: So hi, I’m Max. I’m a freshman in the College. I’m studying music and computer science. And the piece I wrote is called ‘Catharsis.’

I didn’t really know what to expect. Because it’s weird as a freshman because I was actually emailing a ton of people in the department trying to get into classes and stuff.  What I did know was that there wasn’t really much access to private lessons for undergrads. And I also knew that I wanted to keep doing; I wanted to keep composing. So I guess, in the end, it was actually way cooler or it was more than I thought it would be because I actually didn’t know about the whole recording aspect. And I knew Mivos was a big name. So it was really interesting that it was cool to me that they got to come and give us that opportunity. So it was a lot of fun. And I learned a ton from it.

I think everything that anybody creates really is impacted by what’s going on around the world, consciously or subconsciously. So I think it’s hard to kind of not have a COVID piece in a way. But I do think that it wasn’t my focus to look at COVID as a macro event and to write a piece in response to it. But I saw it more as a chance to overstep compositional bounds that I had from before. And I guess it was just a great time to be able to use this opportunity to work with professional musicians for the first time. And I don’t really think I focused on COVID more as then I focused on my own interests in music, and what I got out of it. So that piece is pretty mental in a way. But I don’t think it’s directly correlated with COVID and what’s going on.

“But I think in relation to the piece, I don’t see really a direct correlation, but more just I was willing during the pandemic to cross more boundaries and do things I wasn’t really comfortable with or I wouldn’t be comfortable before. I mean not even just musical-wise, but I changed my hair and got it dyed and just random stuff like that. It just happened. And I think compositionally, I also took a chance to be able to explore new textures and new horizons of music that I really didn’t know existed beforehand.

[Matthew]: You are about to hear a portion of Max Lu’s “Catharsis” for violin and cello.

[Music: “Catharsis”]

If you are interested in listening to “Catharsis” or any other of Lu’s recordings, you can message him on Instagram or look at his other page @maxlumusic where he posts fun collaborations and projects that he’s working on.

[Music: “Theme and Variations on the Concession of Bodily Autonomy to J.S. Bach”]

[Mac Waters]: My name is Mac Waters. I’m a junior in Columbia College. I use they/he pronouns. And the piece that I wrote for the Advanced Composition seminar last fall was ‘Theme and Variations on the Concession of Bodily Autonomy to J.S. Bach.’

I specifically wanted to write a piece that had to be performed asynchronously. And that was definitely something that came out of the remote aspects of the course and of living remotely for several months at that point. So I think the biggest difference is that the other pieces that I had written were for three or more people in an ensemble, and this piece had to be written for two people, and two people in separate rooms. So it really is a different approach. It challenged me to think outside of my comfort zone, outside of the box in terms of notating music, and conceptualizing the music and the score.

But overall, I think as far as remote courses go, it was one of the better ones I think, partly because there were only how many of them there were, like four or five? I can’t remember this. Yeah. Six. OK. So there were, there were very few of us, which I think was my smallest, remote course, next semester. And so having a close-knit group, being able to talk about cool music. One of the things that I love about the composition seminars here is not just the professors, but the teaching assistants too. And Uri and Diana are fantastic composers.

I didn’t want to write a COVID piece, but I was limited in terms of writing a piece about isolation. So the piece, the original concept came out of, I was up late in a hotel room—my parents, I couldn’t fall asleep. And I had been practicing a lot of Bach, particularly the Courante from the second solo suite. I play viola, so we play a lot of Bach.

And I was firstly, very shocked that it’s not like I was humming it or singing it, I was literally breathing the notes and the rhythms and the pitches of the current without even realizing it. I was thinking, I had never performed this piece—I had my relationship with it as a practicing musician. And sort of thinking about practicing as a musical concept is inherently isolating. And that as musicians we spend a lot of time in a practice room alone by ourselves, just us in the music, repeating things over and over again. I’m always thinking that in itself is isolating, and feels isolating, especially during COVID.

I know a lot of musicians who stop playing completely, and I know a lot of musicians who practice even more because they were spending more time by themselves alone with their instruments. So in that way the genesis of the piece really doesn’t have a lot to do with COVID, it has more to do with this sort of isolating context that performing musicians are subject to. And so in that sense, the piece could easily have been conceived outside of a COVID context. But I do think the stars kind of aligned in some ways and that I needed to write an isolating piece and found myself thinking about isolating practices as a musician that are sort of independent of COVID. Yeah, they sort of aligned in that way.

[Matthew]: Here’s a segment from “Theme and Variations on the Concession of Bodily Autonomy to J.S. Bach” for viola and cello by Mac Waters.

[Music: “Theme and Variations on the Concession of Bodily Autonomy to J.S. Bach”]

If you liked what you heard, you can find this piece and Mac’s other works on their Soundcloud,

[Music: “Toroidal Powdered Iron Core Inductor”]

With hard work and hours of emotional labor last semester, the composers from this seminar each created their own small-scale masterworks. I took this course as well last semester, and I wrote a piece called “Toroidal Powdered Iron Core Inductor” for two violins.

I wasn’t expecting too much going into the composition seminar this year. I was definitely a little resentful when Columbia went online in the fall, especially because I thought there would be a chance this course would be able to meet in person. That said, I still felt like I gained a lot from the course and the seminar, Zosha and the Mivos String Quartet players were extremely accommodating to the virtual landscape where this took place.

The process of writing this piece felt very removed from the circumstances of the pandemic. But as time passes, I’ve started to realize that a lot of my thematic material in this piece demonstrated how my mental state was fairing before I really knew. I am of the general belief that art is a temporal snapshot of the artist during the period they created a piece, so I cannot say that I am surprised that I see this in my own work. With this understanding, I do not think that it is possible to write a piece that is completely removed from the pandemic while many of us are still experiencing it. This being said, the intention of this piece was to be a conceptual sound description of a tangible object. I think that I portray many of the quirks that the inductor—my object of focus—possesses, but it’s also very possible to understand this piece through the lens of the pandemic itself.

During the course of this era of isolation, I thought a lot about how we rarely remember specifics from our day-to-day experiences. And dealing with this thought, I found myself writing in a way that is extremely precise both using notational and musical details that directly support the project. This is markedly different from an older style where I would use detail purely as a function of specificity or even to maintain continuity between sections. This was the first time that I was able to commit to an emotional feeling rather than a logical concept. There are a few layers of irony here, obviously; this is a piece about a very technical object, but in this process of writing it, I figured the only way I could represent an inductor outside of technical physics jargon was through my own language of music.

Finally you are about to hear a section of my own, “Toroidal Powdered Iron Core Inductor” for two violins.

[Music: “Toroidal Powdered Iron Core Inductor”]

If you are interested in listening to more of “Toroidal Powdered Iron Core Inductor,” you can find this piece and some of my other compositions on my YouTube channel, which is just “Matthew Lucia,” or on my website,

These composers and I found ways to express our emotions during the past year in a way that transcends language and builds human connections. Being able to have the intimate experience of working through the composition process with my colleagues allowed me to develop intimate relationships with many of them and their works. And while an in-person experience may have warranted different outcomes, there is a sense of solidarity in creating music together through solitude.

Matthew Lucia Columbia Advanced Composition Seminar Forrest Eimold Mac Waters Max Lu Nicolas Duran Zosha Di Castri