Random Acts of Music

Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 2:23 am | By Matthew Imber '11

 

Grinnell College is not a music school, and does not have a large music department. But someone forgot to tell the students.

Last semester, I had the treat of working with Simone Fontanelli, an Italian conductor, composer, and classical guitarist — and one of the best clinicians in Europe. The Grinnell Symphony Orchestra flew him in for a week of guestconducting. The week culminated in one of the best concerts I can remember from our ensemble. Playing a program of all Italian music (Rossini, Boccherini, Cherubini, Puccini, and other rhyming names) under the baton of a native Italian was quite an experience.

The College recently finished restoring the historic Aeolian Skinner organ in Herrick Chapel. I’ve heard it in a few concerts now, and it sounds amazing! For me, the highlight of the organ’s Rededication Weekend was a concert by Kevin Bowyer, an organist from Scotland who specializes in “impossible music” — music previously considered impossible for a human to perform. The College somehow commissioned a work by American composer John Zorn (who no longer accepts commissions); the piece is so weird, radical, and near-impossible to play that Mr. Bowyer said he was afraid he might break the College’s organ. I had the daunting task of turning pages for Mr. Bowyer during the show. You know it was an impressive performance when the guy turning pages gets compliments for surviving the ordeal and simply being able to follow along! As it happened, the instrument was not damaged.

Separate from the official Department of Music, music at Grinnell can be unofficial and is always cooperative. Campus bands work with the Freesound student group to coordinate equipment and practice space, which is now being soundproofed. Sometimes they even open for bigger bands hired by the Concerts Committee for some weekend entertainment, and there’s always the Freesound compilation CD that magically appears every year.

The College’s Public Events Committee brings in groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo from South Africa, Inti-Illimani from South America, or the Tallis Scholars from Britain. For jazz fans, this year brought saxophonist Sonny Fortune. Even he couldn’t compare to legendary trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Not only did they put on a great show, but Marsalis and a few band members also jammed with student musicians afterward in Lyle’s, our campus pub.

Often it’s the unscheduled and unrehearsed performances — the random acts of music — that make my day. A few weeks ago, when the weather started getting nice, I left Bucksbaum Center for the Arts to find a harpist practicing in the courtyard. This in turn reminded me of one of my first days at Grinnell, when I finished practicing and walked outside to find a group of students playing bluegrass under a streetlamp after 11:30 p.m.

A couple of weeks ago after I left a (music) class and headed to lunch, I entered the campus center to find a large crowd gathered in the E-mail Lounge. String musicians were setting up for what appeared to be a spontaneous concert, and I found myself a little sad that I wasn’t joining them in the cello section, but I still enjoyed listening. As they were playing the Mendelssohn Octet, others in the crowd will remember me as the complete nerd yelling the request: “Fourth movement! Play the fourth movement!”

Matthew Imber '11 is a Music major from Overland Park, Kansas.