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Student Composer puts poem to song

The first strains are chilling, the harmonies so exceptional they sound source-less. In short, Mikey Maiorana’s Poem of the Air is absolutely beautiful.

Maiorana ’12, a music major, violist, and member of Grinnell Singers, has been conducting contemporary classical music since his junior year of high school. This past summer, Mairoana and two other students, Vinny Newton ’12 and Erik Jarvis ’12 did a MAP with music professor and Grinnell Singers director John Rommereim, in which each of them composed three full compositional pieces set to poems of their choice. Maiorana discovered when working on his MAP that composing music is more challenging than he initially thought.

“It’s rough toward the beginning because you’ve invested yourself in this project,” Maiorana said. “You see this blank canvas before you. It’s just kind of daunting. Anything could be there.”

But for Maiorana, the feature that makes composing music so challenging and sometimes overwhelming is also what makes it so gratifying and exciting.

“There’s no one telling you what’s right,” Maiorana said. “You have to figure out how to make something new. It’s fun, it’s rewarding.”

Making something new hasn’t always been easy. Due to his dissatisfaction with his first piece, Maiorana completely restarted his composition, leaving him only two and a half weeks to complete a rough draft for his new work, Poem of the Air, a choral piece set to Longfellow’s poem, Snowflakes. However, despite this time crunch, Maiorana’s first MAP piece developed into a very powerful and beautiful work, with the melody and subtle harmony mirroring the meaning of the poem.

“[Maiorana] has a sense for what you might call the emotional projector of the text. … There is a clear emotional story that… [emerges] from the music,” Rommereim said. “So that’s a pretty rare gift. … I feel like [Poem of the Air] shows that feature, which is quite admirable…”

In September, Maiorana organized, led, and with the help of eight fellow music students and John Rommereim as conductor, performed Poem of the Air, which allowed him to further grasp the entire process of creating a piece, and its realization.

“Even if you have a wonderful piece in the abstract, you have to have the opportunity to find out how it actually sounds with real life performers,” Rommereim said.

Satisfied with the fall performance, Maiorana once again has the opportunity to see his piece in the context of a real performance as it is being performed by Grinnell Singers, with Gabe Wisner-Carlson ’15 as the solo cellist, on Feb. 26 as well as on the Grinnell Singers’ tour during spring break. On tour, Rommereim will also act as the performance leader.

“I try to approach [conducting] with a great deal of respect for the composer. So you’re trying your very best to… understand that composer’s… vision for that work,” Rommereim said. “You try to bring it to life, and if the piece is at a certain level than that that’s easier. … A lot of it [Maiorana’s piece] brings to life pretty quickly, which is… a real accomplishment.”

Rommereim is a strong proponent of conducting student works like Maiorana’s because it is not only beneficial to the student composer whose piece is being performed, but also to other student composers and musicians who might be inspired to write their own pieces.
“I think it’s important for Grinnell singers to do the music of their fellow composers because the minute you do it, other people come up and say ‘Oh, maybe I could do that too…’ It helps generate a certain energy for composition,” Rommereim said.

Rommereim’s desire to see more compositional pieces on campus is encapsulated in this weekend’s 24-Hour Composition Event with Music SEPC, which Maiorana organized and will compose for, in which composers are each randomly assigned two performers of different instruments. The composers must then create a musical composition for their two performers in just 12 hours— from this Friday at 7:30 p.m. to Saturday morning. The composers then send their pieces to the performers who have 12 hours to practice for the concert at 7:30 p.m. that same day (Saturday, Feb. 18) in Bucksbaum.

“You’re forced to have some product in 12 hours,” Maiorana said. This product is what Maiorana loves most about composing, whether he’s given a 12-hour or 3-month time period, it is “The act of creating. Making something that wasn’t there before. [Something] new that people could perform.”

If you are interested in participating in the 24-Hour Composition Event either this time or next time, email [musicsepc]. To hear a recording of Maiorana’s work visit:

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