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Blowing in a New Direction

December 08, 2020 The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center | School of Music

graphic of musicians playing instruments

UMD Wind Orchestra’s improvisational project premieres tonight.

By Sala Levin ’10 | Maryland Today 

A group of musicians is tasked with imagining the sound of joy. Or sorrow. Or a cat. Or a child playing. Then, individually, everyone picks up their instrument and plays whatever they’ve thought up for the group, resulting in an unpredictable sonic burst.

Tonight, viewers and listeners can experience the product of a semester-long experiment in improvisation. Through the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Artist Partner Programs, UMD School of Music's Wind Orchestra has been working with composer Danny Clay and visiting artist the Living Earth Show to create “Music for Hard Times,” a new improvisational piece that brings together musicians physically separated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the semester, students in the wind orchestra have received “strategies,” or prompts, to create a specific mood or effect by employing tone, rhythm and more. Over video conferencing, students broke into small groups and improvise together. Next, on their own, they recorded a solo improvisation based on the group exercise. Clay, along with Travis Andrews and Andy Myerson of the percussion-guitar duo the Living Earth Show, then stitched together the recordings and added visuals for a final piece that will be seen and heard tonight.

“You’re used to knowing what you’re supposed to be playing—you’re supposed to be playing the ‘right’ notes,” said Luci Disano D.M.A. ’22, a graduate assistant who worked on the undertaking. “One of the values for me of this project was getting to experience a performance where there are no right notes—the notes that I choose are correct.”

Michael Votta, professor of conducting and ensembles, and director of the UMD Wind Orchestra, had already been intending to work on improvisation with his students when the chance to collaborate with Clay, Andrews and Myerson came along. 

The title of the roughly 25-minute piece, “Music for Hard Times,” is no coincidence. It’s “music that allows both the performer and the listener to feel calm and centered—a refuge from all the times we’ve been dealing with,” said Votta.

Read more in Maryland Today

Illustration by Shutterstock.