Collaborative Composition

August 1, 2006

Students in the Duke music department's graduate composition program are typically required to fulfill a teaching assistantship--presenting lectures in undergraduate classrooms, guiding discussions, and leading ear-training, sight-singing, and keyboard-skills labs.

But for composer Carl Schimmel, a graduate student who plans to complete his dissertation next year, the experience of working with undergraduates has been a little more personal.

Under a new research assistantship, he spent the spring semester working one-on-one with musician Peter Dong '09 to compose a flute solo for Dong to perform.

After the two were introduced, Schimmel presented a rough sketch of the piece he had in mind. Throughout the semester, he would occasionally show up at Dong's flute lessons with fragments of the piece to talk about and work through. On his own time, Dong would make some progress on the piece and come back with suggestions. The collaborative process, he says, allowed him to stretch. "With this piece, I've encountered some obstacles I've never seen before, with the leaps and the speed," he says.

Graduate composition students do not lack for work, typically building their portfolios by composing pieces for faculty performers and professional musicians, but Schimmel, too, benefited from having a student flutist on whom to test ideas. "The most successful composers know how to work effectively with performers and can respond imaginatively to the constraints of each opportunity," says Scott Lindroth, Kevin D. Gorter Associate Professor of music and department chair. "Ideally, the so-called limitations of a particular situation can become a source of inspiration."

Dong says the things they worked on most were the pace and jumps from very high notes to very low notes. "On a piano or a computer you can pretty much skip around and do whatever you want," he says. "With a wind instrument with keys, it's a little bit different.

"We worked very closely with the phrasing, making sure that the phrases weren't too long, so I had a chance to take breaths."

Schimmel describes the completed work, yet untitled, as alternating "between a very fast idea with a lot of repeated notes and leaps, and a more melodic and free-floating slow theme." He says it may be premiered at Duke during the coming year.