Thayer-made musical instruments make their debut

Hop Backstage

May 15, 2017

May 4 was the culmination of the third STEM Arts project by the Hopkins Center for the Arts, this one in partnership with Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering. Over a span of 2 years, composer Molly Herron met with Thayer faculty and students, helped teach a Thayer course on designing and building new instruments, and composed a work using the instruments students in the course built. That piece, Assembly, was performed May 4 in a free concert in the Glycofi Atrium of the Thayer School’s MacLean Center. Hop Programming Director Margaret Lawrence give us a view of the project’s exciting final week:

The week of Molly Herron’s STEM Arts premiere was an exciting one: it was the performers’ first chance to lay eyes on the score. Monday, Molly and Tigue met Thayer students for dinner, then started laying the groundwork for the new piece through rehearsals, with multiple tweaks and re-prints of the score. The singers arrived Tuesday, and began learning the complicated starts, stops, and shifts of tempo. With text spanning the range of materials used to make instruments from ancient times (“mammoth bone, swan wing bone”), to 19th century materials (“pear wood, rose wood”), to modern time (“titanium, aluminum, brass”), the singers needed absolute precision as they locked into the complex rhythms of the percussionists.

On Thursday, May 4, the free afternoon performance drew more than 128 people to the Thayer School’s soaring atrium, with some watching from a balcony above the action. Thayer Dean Joe Helble recalled a prior collaboration between the Hop and Thayer when the Hop helped commission a contemporary opera about Nicola Tesla, and shared how excited he was to be invited to partner again. Margaret Lawrence described composer Molly Herron’s extraordinary enthusiasm for teaching and imagining how music could reflect the inspiring, outward-looking orientation of Dartmouth’s engineering faculty and students.

This performance enabled the audience to do something rare: hear a brand-new piece of music twice in a row. With Herron sharing her experiences and artistic intent—as well as demonstrating many of the student-designed instruments—between the performances, many reported hearing the work in an entirely new way the second time. The musical work itself—spare, finely tuned, with tight harmonies and rhythmic interplay between the vocalists and moments when each student-made instrument was given the spotlight—may be heard again in a film to be released this summer.

Instrument Design class
Students designed and built an array of musical instruments.

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