Coming back to Cork

My program got off to a good start.  All of us in the MA in composition were told to bring our instruments for the first day of class.  When we arrived, the course coordinator told us we wouldn’t be doing much talking that day; instead, we’d start with a musical introduction.  For the better part of two hours we improvised together in an almost completely unstructured way.  Though it felt a bit like being thrown in the deep end—I’ve done some group improvisation before, but never with all strangers or without some “games” to start things off—I left feeling excited about the focus on the music that the start to the course demonstrated.  My excitement has definitely been borne out by my classes thus far.  There is a real attention to sound and willingness to get into the nitty-gritty of how music is put together that I truly appreciate about this program.  This is an overgeneralization, but I sometimes feel that high-level composition programs in the U.S. can be a little hesitant to get really hands-on for fear of seeming too “basic.”  Stressing things like process or long-range structure is useful, of course, but I think there’s also a huge amount to be learned from saying “Hey, guys, what would you expect the change in sound to be if we switched the clarinet and the piano in this chord?  Okay, let’s try it.”  So I’m very grateful for the UCC professors’ willingness to let us experiment, to make sure we all understand exactly what’s going on mathematically with a particular rhythm, to get into the nooks and crannies of the music so that we can learn how to make it better.  I can’t wait to see how my music changes after a year here.

And yet…even with such a solid beginning to my Mitchell year, if I had tried to sit down and reflect on all this a couple weeks ago I’m sure I would have found it pretty difficult.   My first two months in Cork have felt like a bit of a whirlwind.  This week my classmates and I had to turn in a 7,500 word essay, play pieces we had written entirely out of a single chord, and defend our compositional interests and portfolio proposals in front of all the department’s postgrads and several professors.  When I got back from class on Thursday, I had a two-line e-mail: “It’s over!  Who’s up for a drink later?”  When we got to the pub that night, though, we all agreed that we had no idea exactly what was over.  Our first tough week?  Our first crack at a slew of new ideas?  These first two months in Cork have felt the same: I’ve done, seen, and learned a lot, but it’s a bit hard to say just what.

Last weekend, though, I had the interesting and slightly dizzying experience of flying back to the U.S. for a couple days, and I think it put me in a position to see my time in Cork thus far in in a somewhat clearer light.   The Cornell Chorus, Cornell University’s women’s choir, had commissioned me to write a piece this summer for their “No Flowers, No Whining” commissioning program.  It was a project I felt very strongly about—especially since it’s absolutely true that most women’s choir repertoire tends to fall into either the “Look, a flower!” or “Woe is me, a man has left me” camp—so it was a wonderful surprise when Cornell offered to cover the cost of my flight back to work with the choir and attend the premiere.

It was a great trip.  The chorus sang beautifully and had clearly put a lot of time and care into their preparation; I couldn’t have been more pleased.  My boyfriend, who lives in New York, also took the time to drive the four hours up to Ithaca for the concert.  In many ways it was a perfect weekend.  But it was also a strange one—this was the first time I had ever come back to the U.S. for such a short period of time, knowing I’d be turning right back around and leaving again.  Of course the U.S. is and probably always will be my home, but truth be told, it felt like a visit.  It was surprising how much returning to Cork felt like…well, perhaps not coming home, but definitely coming back to a place for which I have a real affection and am invested in for the long-term.

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