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Music to Mills Ears: Music grads perform for community

Music graduate student Christina Stanley paints the score for her composition "Mirror Scratched." (Photo courtesy of Christina Stanley)

The Mills graduate music department is a medley to say the least.

“I would say this is a pretty rambunctious group,” said Music Department Head Chris Brown. “There’s a lot of contrast in this group; there are a few who are more anarchic while some are doing pieces that are more quiet and meditative.”

Students will get the chance to hear this range Mar. 11-13 during the annual Signal Flow music festival in the Littlefield Concert Hall. Graduate students will perform a variety of original compositions, varying from double basses to computer music.

Signal Flow began in 2002 when the music department started growing. In 1990 there were 30 students; there are now around 50.

“Part of our requirements for our masters degree is that students have a concert of their own work, but then we got so many students it became impossible, Brown said, “so we created a festival so they could collaborate.”

Two of the collaborators this year will be Christina Stanley and Daniel Steffey. Steffey will be one of the musicians who will perform Stanley’s composition “Mirror Scratched.”

Stanley painted a 30″ x 40″ graphic score of “Mirror Scratched” on canvas. The oil paints indicate the intensity the players should play their instruments with.

Despite giving specific directions via color, Stanley said she wanted to allow for elements of improvisation.

“I like to leave some of (the music) up to the performers,” Stanley said.

Steffey said that collaborating in pieces such as Stanley’s “Mirror Scratched” allow students to work together, and not feel threatened by each other.

“You don’t get a really competitive feeling because everyone’s so diverse,” Steffey said.

Steffey studied percussion at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Since his time at Mills, Steffey said he has had the chance to explore electronic music, something he only had time to do outside the classroom before.

Steffey also delved into composing, writing music at all hours. He composed his Signal Flow piece entitled  String Quartet No. 1 for two weeks straight last October, writing from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m.
every night.

“I conceived it over a long period of time,” Steffey said. “It took eight months of planning but two weeks to write.”

For graduate student Peter Wong, the compositional process took years. He studied linguistics at UC Berkeley for his bachelors, focusing on phonology and phonetics, the study of speech sounds.

Wong said he realized he wanted to explore music when he graduated.

“(My composition) ‘Choices’ is the outcome of an idea I had several years ago, and that inspired me to apply to Mills to pursue a degree in electronic music,” Wong said. “When I thought of the piece, I realized I didn’t know enough to pull it off, neither musically nor technically, and I had reached a point of stagnation in my self-study.”

Since enrolling at Mills, Wong has learned various techniques from composing on a Moog, a synthesizer from the 1960s, to reading various texts on post-World War I compositions.

“After a year and a half of cramming reams of knowledge into my head and gleaning finer – as well as many blunter – points of aesthetics from the experienced and discriminating artists who make up the faculty and student body in the music department here, I feel like I’ve gotten to a point where I can take a stab at (‘Choices’),” Wong said.

And hopefully students will be present to see Wong try to tackle electronic music.

“Relatively few people outside our music community come to our concerts, even when we advertise and have free admission,” said graduate student Ralph Lewis. “This generation of composers wants people to come and to get connected with contemporary music making.”

Lewis, 24, said that, above all else, the music department just wants students to come and soak in the Signal Flow music festival.

“I think what many of us ask is, put aside formal assumptions and expectations,” Lewis said. “Come take on the different visceral experiences of these evenings.”

Grad students hope that, once they graduate, the show will go on.

“After Mills, I just want to keep writing and playing and composing,” Steffey said. “I want to start a group with people who are into similar things and maybe start an electronic community and keep this (Mills music) community going.”