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Grinnell Artists: Calvin Tang

Tang plays the piano, guitar and tenor saxophone, and has immersed himself in various genres of music, including jazz and classical. Photo by Helena Gruensteidl.

By Lily Böhlke

Tang plays the piano, guitar and tenor saxophone, and has immersed himself in various genres of music, including jazz and classical. Photo by Helena Gruensteidl.

Music major, member of the band Migratory Birds and jazz enthusiast Calvin Tang ’20 has always been interested in music. His parents used to play classical music around the house, and as a child whenever he passed a music store he would very quickly be sitting in it, tinkering around with instruments. Eventually, he found jazz, which became his passion.

When he was in school, he was required to learn to play an instrument. Now, he plays the piano, guitar and tenor saxophone, his primary instrument. He is a member of the Jazz Ensemble and currently takes jazz piano lessons.

“Jazz to me is kind of the pinnacle of musical achievement. The history of jazz is so rich, if you look at what it has stood for, what it stands for now and all of the changes that it went through. I think you can even look back at that, and it all just tells a story,” Tang said.

One element of the genre that attracts Tang is its collaboration with different types of music, a feature which many other genres do not have.

“It certainly builds upon classical and all these older musical theories, but it does so in a way that’s very interesting and it stems from people just taking what was already there but then adding different elements to it and just doing things that people have never heard before,” Tang said.

Through Jazz Ensemble and music theory classes at Grinnell, Tang has been able to learn about sides of music which he had not had much exposure to before arriving here. Tang has started to develop an appreciation for music for not only how it sounds to the ear, but also for its construction and the intentions of the artist.

“In high school I was only in bands — I didn’t take music theory in high school. So to approach it from a more academic standpoint kind of rounds out who I am as a musician. It benefits me in different aspects, especially since I want to get into jazz and you really need to be solid on your theory,” Tang said. “I think it’s a chance to practice that, and branch out and learn, … because I was never huge on classical music, but after taking Music Theory I and II, I’m looking at why the composers did what they did and looking at which structural elements you get to appreciate. I think through the major I’ll begin to appreciate more forms of music, ones that I’ve been more closed off from before.”

Tang began writing music last semester in his first composition class. Although it involved many  long nights, he said he enjoyed every minute of it. He wrote pieces for individual instruments throughout the semester, culminating in his grand final project, a composition for a clarinet, three strings and a piano. While he has never played some of these instruments before, being a music major at Grinnell has given him the opportunity to study many of their scores, although he said maybe he hadn’t even studied enough.

“I was trying to piece together different aspects that I kind of like, and I drew from different composers. It’s one thing to try to reinvent the wheel, to try to do something completely off the path — which is really awesome too, in composition class we study a lot of those out-there ideas — but for me I wanted to kind of keep it simple,” Tang said.

Tang is also a member of Migratory Birds, a band composed of Kosuke Yo ’20 on the drums, Sara Tantiviramond ’20 on the piano, Will Em ’20 on the bass and Yi-Chia Wang ’20 on vocals. They typically play pop and soft rock, which strays away from Tang’s affinity for jazz. According to Tang experiences with a student band are beneficial for different reasons than participating in a jazz band, where like-minded students come together to express appreciation for a genre.

“With the student group, it’s more of a time where you get together with people that you really like, and then again you do something that you really like — make music. … It’s kind of more like bare-bones and there’s a bit more grit — you can feel the edges more,” Tang said.

In the past, Migratory Birds has played in The Grinnellian, the ISO Cultural Evening and the Spring Festival held by the Chinese Student Association (CSA). This semester, they plan to audition to play in the ISO Cultural Evening again.

“When we play in some of these Freesound concerts or at the Grinnellian, it all kind of pays off and you’re out there doing what you love,” Tang said. “You also get to see all the other student bands perform too, and it’s really awesome to see the community come together and I think that’s really beautiful.”

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