STEM Arts concert will feature instruments made by students

The three movements of "Assembly" will each showcase a different type of material.

by Gray Christie | 5/4/17 1:00am

This afternoon, composer Molly Herron and the Tigue, an ensemble of three percussionists, will perform Herron’s composition, “Assembly” — on instruments that were invented under six months ago.

This concert is the latest installment of the STEM Arts program, which focuses on the connections between art and science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Specifically, this performance is the result of a collaboration between the Hopkins Center for the Arts and the Thayer School of Engineering. STEM Arts began three years ago with a collaboration between guest composer Fay Wang and the biology department. That first piece was inspired, according to Hop programming director Margaret Lawrence, by microbial resistance to antibiotics and featured an actual explosion. Last year’s STEM Arts performance by composer Tristan Perich was inspired by and performed in the math department. Although this collaboration between disciplines may seem improbable, Lawrence said she sees a logical relationship between art and science.

“We have a hunch that some really magical things can happen when you embed an artist into a scientific department,” she said. “The way an artist sees learning, the way they see research is totally different. And to translate something that sparks their interest or inspires them … might create an opportunity … to see that work in a new light.”

The Hop began creating this year’s installment by asking Thayer students and faculty about their particular interests and philosophies about their work. Lawrence then collaborated with Thayer staff in identifying an artist and chose Herron, a prominent composer known for using unconventional and newly invented instruments.

Herron and members of Tigue percussion were brought in to help facilitate a four-day course, “Acoustic Instrument Design,” over winter break in which undergraduate and graduate engineers designed new musical instruments.

“The challenge that [Herron] gave them was to use materials that were either wood, metal or plastic, and that were percussive in some way, but that was a very wide range,” Lawrence said. “It’s kind of an unprecedented project for us to have a composer create a piece on instruments that were designed and built by Dartmouth students.”

Having the composer and musicians in the room while the instruments were being designed and built was a unique experience for everyone involved. Joshua Elliott Th’19, a Ph.D. candidate at Thayer who works primarily in snow science and robotics, said that he felt that Herron’s presence contributed positively to the process.

“You can think of her as the consumer, in a sense,” he said. “So it was nice to actually have her [give input] … It definitely gave it more purpose.”

Elliott’s project took the form of a play on a musical saw. Another graduate student who worked on the project, Shaojie Jiao Th’18, is a computer scientist who works with the theoretical principles underlying the creation of sound. Wanting to design an instrument that “vibrates for as long as possible,” he created an instrument in the style of a gong. Jiao said that he found value in the exercise of his theoretical knowledge in the production of a real-world object.

“I just wanted to try to see whether the theoretical stuff really works in the way we expected,” he said.

Herron shares the spirit of applying theoretical concepts to tangible products, citing it as one of her motivations for the project. She also emphasizes the collaborative aspect of the project, both within and between disciplines.

“The title, ‘Assembly,’ refers not only to engineers (and composers) creating materials and building, but also the way projects bring people together,” she wrote in the event’s program notes.

Each movement of “Assembly” focuses on a different type of material. The first movement, “The Oldest Materials,” is played on materials like mammoth bone and grass. The second movement is played on different types of wood. The instruments in the third movement are constructed from metals and polymers. According to the program notes, Herron’s focus in using this variety of materials was to “[explore] the forms and identities of many different materials and worked to frame them in ways that allowed their nature to speak.”

Herron is at the forefront of contemporary composition, specializing in the use of unusual instruments. She received her masters degree in music from the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Princeton University. She has written music for a wide range of groups and been sponsored by the Copland Fund as well as the Brooklyn Arts Council.

Performing the piece will be the Tigue percussion trio, an adventurous and well-known performance group based in Brooklyn, New York. One of its members, Amy Garapic, teaches percussion at Dartmouth. The group specializes in interpreting traditional forms and pop through new improvisational styles.

The piece also includes a vocal trio, with Justine Aronson and Sarah Bailey singing soprano and Andrew Munn singing bass. All three are prominent professional singers who work in a variety of genres from opera to chamber music. The lyrics assigned to the vocalists are as unconventional as the instruments themselves. To echo the materials used to design the instruments, Herron has the vocalists singing words like “copper,” “gold,” “pear wood” and “rosewood.”

The concert, which takes place this afternoon at 5 p.m. in Glycofi Auditorium, will be divided into two segments. The piece will be performed in the first segment and then performed again, in exactly the same way, in the second. In between, Herron will speak to the audience about what went into the composition, its background and its meaning.

“[This performative approach] is transformative, and when you hear it again, it’s amazing,” Lawrence said. “It’s like a whole new piece of music.”