Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Stringing along: Bienen’s student composers concert showcases students’ musical journeys

Sonya Dymova/The Daily Northwestern
Student composers reflected on their creative methods after a Tuesday night concert showcasing their original work.

Some Northwestern students aren’t just writing essays or lab reports for class — instead, they’re creating original musical scores. 

Four such students showcased their original work at Bienen School of Music’s Student Composers Concert Tuesday night at the Regenstein Hall of Music.

The Daily interviewed each student composer about their creative process and their musical journey. Here’s what they had to say.

Elisa Johnson

Tuesday night was the first time Bienen and Weinberg freshman Elisa Johnson had performed her music in front of an audience. Johnson said performing “ImPerfection,” her solo piano piece, allowed her to create nuances as she goes.

“It’s different when someone else is playing your piece because you have to tell them everything you want, and sometimes it doesn’t always match what you have in mind, but it’s a lot easier when you play yourself,” Johnson said.

“ImPerfection” is meant to contrast between what artists think of as perfect and what people think is imperfect, she said.

Johnson was inspired to create the piece based on her experience as an artist. She said her attitude toward perfection in composition has changed since she first started composing in sixth grade.

“Really early on, you learn, ‘mistakes are the enemy’ and ‘we want to be absolutely perfect,’” Johnson said, “But I was thinking about how a lot of music these days can sound really overproduced and almost like too perfect to the point where you kind of lose the humanity in it.”

Jianing Yang

Bienen and Weinberg sophomore Jianing Yang created electronic effects to pair with the piano, violin and cello parts of her piece “My Shadow Over Crimson Red.” 

Yang said the idea for her piece came to her back in December after she noticed how she uses a lot of visual and literary elements when writing music. 

“Writing music is a different process for everyone, but for me, I usually start with what I want a piece to be about, because I need context for the meaning in a way that decides which instrumentation should go into it,” she said. 

Yang said her piece’s electronic and rock elements, paired with poetic lyrics, explore and challenge stereotypes surrounding femininity. 

Divided into three parts, her piece transitions through a dynamic exploration of movement, culminating in a powerful commentary on emotions and societal expectations of women, particularly the dynamic between sisters.

“I didn’t try to make the thesis intentionally feminine,” she said. “Initially, I was trying to tell it from a female perspective, but it ended up being pretty feminine. In the last part, I wanted to question all the connotations given to women such as women being overly emotional, having so much love, and being sensitive as both a manifesto to oppose the stereotype.”

Khalid Siraj

McCormick junior Khalid Siraj said composing his piece “Waltz of Stained Glass” has taught him how to move forward in his creative process.

Siraj said he struggles with rushing and keeping a consistent tempo when performing. 

Last quarter, Siraj decided to revisit a difficult piece, Waltz Op.69, No. 2 in B minor, and in the process, began improvising over its chords, he said. After tweaking them slightly, a distinct melody emerged that he liked. 

Over the next two days, Siraj had come up with six or seven additional melodies that also resonated with him.

He said the most difficult part was building the story and linking the melodies together.

“The day when I strung it all together, in a huge chapel filled with color, I sat at the grand piano and played for five hours straight and went through it over and over again,” he said. 

Matthew Mailman

In his composition, “in the Sky, the Sun dances the figure 8,” Bienen and Weinberg freshman Matthew Mailman drew upon the intricacies of the sun’s path through space.

He said composing the piece helped him realize the fluidity of the composition process.

“This is a piece to bring attention to a very small feature of nature,” he said. 

Mailman began writing music at the end of his freshman year of high school when he found himself with more free time on his hands during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

He was originally a trumpet player, but after the pandemic took away the ability to play with others, he tried his hand at writing music and found it more enjoyable.

“My favorite part of composing isn’t composing, but working with the musicians,” Mailman said. “Putting that music in front of people and having them read it, make it music, and give it motion — it’s such a unique experience, which I don’t think you get anywhere else.”

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