By Travis Trombley
Say what you will of its price tag or employment (and thankfully quick dismissal) of odorous snow-melting beet juice, Albion College does much to support students and their endeavors. In this case, it even supported a music composition major at Western Michigan University by offering him a rare opportunity to have a symphonic composition of his own creation programmed by the Albion orchestra.
Robert Squiers, Kalamazoo resident and member of the Albion College Community Orchestra, composed the symphonic Andromeda that the Albion College Symphony Orchestra performed during their “Russians ‘N’ Space” concert on Feb. 23.
According to Dr. James Ball, director of orchestral activities and professor of conducting, Squiers, a resident of Kalamazoo, became associated with the program by means of the community orchestra. Created in 2011 to make up for waning numbers of students in the program, the one-night-a-week community orchestra allows musicians from the surrounding communities, even as far as Lansing or Kalamazoo, to come to the college and play. When Squiers, a violin/viola player, heard the orchestra was looking for string players, he readily hopped on board.
Ball says that it was after practice one night in 2011 while eating at Cascarelli’s that Squiers first mentioned the composition and they began discussing the possibilities.
“I followed [the development of the piece] for the last few years until it was ready to play,” Ball said. “He’s showed me various stages of the piece as it was being written. What I heard, I liked, so we decided a little less than a year ago that we’d try to do it sometime this year.”
With assurance from Squiers that Andromeda would be completed over the winter break, Ball set to work programming it into the next concert and later rehearsing it with the orchestra. Squiers said that he was encouraged by the quick pace with which the orchestra members picked up the composition.
According to Grace Dougherty, Canton senior and cellist in the symphonic orchestra, Andromeda was not too hard to learn. The challenge, she said, was putting all the pieces together to make the ensemble sound good.
It’s fitting that Squiers’ piece would be played during a space-themed concert. Andromeda, Squiers said, was inspired by a painting of the same name that depicted the astrological constellation in a stylized manner—an Impressionistic painting crafted by Squiers’ grandfather, a painter and art historian.
“When I look upon it, Andromeda [the painting] evokes a dreamlike mood in which an elegant likeness of the mythical figure faintly emerges from the haze, spurring a romantically reverent feeling with regards to feminine beauty,” Squiers said in an email. “As my grandfather was something of a space enthusiast, I also get the vague sense of wonderment from the painting. Therefore, I decided, that the primary thematic elements that would embody my piece should be an ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere, a feeling of awe and wonderment, and romance.”
According to Dr. Ball, visual art inspiring musical art (or vice versa) is not an uncommon phenomenon. As the two art forms share many of the same historical phases, such as Impressionism, it makes sense that certain emotional underpinnings be transferrable.
For example, while Impressionism can represent different things for artists and musicians, for both, Impressionism is kind of “fuzzy”—for music, according to Ball, it’s fuzzy in a melodic sense.
“Robert saw the ethereal, mystical fuzziness of outer space and related that to certain sounds in his head,” Ball said.
The emotional response elicited by the art provided the framework of feeling of the composition, Squiers said, but the more technical elements failed to so readily suggest themselves.
Squiers said the process of communicating the feelings provoked by looking at a static image through a more fluid medium would be akin to adapting a film into a novel. Unlike the reverse process, in which the narrative is generally compressed into a far more linear form, going the other way entails making use of the conventions of the medium to interpret and expand upon the source material.
In the realm of music, Squiers said in an email, this means implementing recognizable melodies and motifs that are in various ways repeated for the sake of cohesion but still allowed to subtly evolve. Furthermore, all this must occur within a structure that facilitates the movement of the music in a logical way.
Squiers implemented a number of strategies to transfer the spirit of his grandfather’s painting into his music.
For instance, Squiers used “extended chords” to imbue the composition with the “lush and slightly ambiguous character” of the painting, something he said he couldn’t accomplish within the confines a more familiar harmonic structure like common practice tonality.
“I could afford to be more selective about how I would use harmonic rhythm,” Squiers said in an email. “[I]n the more tranquil moments in the piece, slower harmonic changes occur, whereas in some of the more passionate outbursts, the harmonic flow is more rapid.”
In addition, Squiers said he used shimmering and chord oscillation techniques to keep long stretches of music residing on a single chord from becoming static. This means that while some notes would remain constant, others would move back and forth throughout the piece to provide a sense of movement.
In the end, Andromeda was well received, and Squiers remains thankful for what he called a very rare opportunity for unestablished composers.
“What I take away from this experience is a sense of accomplishment, but also a profound sense of humility and gratitude for having been given such an honor and opportunity,” Squiers said in an email.
With a vision of making the community orchestra a south-central community orchestra, Dr. Ball encourages anyone interested in playing music to try out. As Squiers can attest, you never know what opportunities may await you.
You can contact Dr. Ball via email at email@example.com.
Photo courtesy of Robert Squiers