Ending on a High Note

John Mayrose, Caroline Mallonée, and Carl Schimmel, Ph.D. candidates: Ending on a High Note
August 1, 2004
Composed and awarded: from left, Mallonée, Schimmel, and Mayrose

 Composed and awarded: from left, Mallonée, Schimmel, and Mayrose. Photo: Les Todd


John Mayrose, Caroline Mallonée, and Carl Schimmel, students in the Ph.D. program in music composition, couldn't have written better codas to conclude the year. Mayrose and Mallonée won the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers Foundation/Morton Gould Young Composer awards for their chamber works, What Hath

God Wrought? and Throwing Mountains, respectively. For his piece, Five Lies, also a chamber work, Schimmel received the composition prize from the Society of Composers Inc.

"They're highly textured and boldly rhythmic pieces," says Stephen Jaffe, Mary D.B.T.and James H. Semans Professor of music. "Very cool music."

Mayrose, a native of Columbia, South Carolina, grew up playing "pluck string" instruments, mostly banjo and guitar. He earned a degree in music performance from the University of South Carolina and entered the graduate music-composition program at Duke in 2000. One day, while driving, Mayrose listened to a show on NPR about Samuel F.B. Morse and the first message sent in his newly minted code, "What hath God wrought!" Mayrose thought to himself, "I should write a piece on this."

And he did, using Morse code "as a means to create musical figures, form, and rhythm," he says. "In some sections, the code directly corresponds to rhythmic motives. For instance, 'What' is dot, dash-dash, dot-dot-dot, dot-dash, dash in code. I gave the dots a short value, usually eighth notes and the dashes, quarter notes."

"He's made a fascinating piece, and, rightly, he thinks of it as a breakthrough composition for him," says Jaffe.

"Before you start writing, you set up rules that determine the parameters of the piece," says Mallonée, who graduated from Harvard with a major in music and helped found the Harvard-Radcliffe Contemporary Music Ensemble. "The notes, the instruments, the pitch, the rhythm. They all have to fit in your system." Throwing Mountains, written for bass clarinet, cello, contrabass, and piano, grew out of a hobby. "I used to throw pottery, and I was fascinated with the idea of making something symmetrical out of natural materials. And so for Throwing Mountains, I use a piano but with natural materials: paper stuffed in the bottom to make it rattle on the low notes, and metal inserted on top, which, on the high notes, sounds like bells chiming." Besides the ASCAP Award, Mallonée won a Fulbright Fellowship and the Graduate School's Advanced International Fellowship in Amsterdam, where she'll study next year under the renowned composer Louis Andriessen.

Schimmel is a former actuarial assistant with a degree in mathematics from Case Western Reserve University. He applies math to his compositions, "to determine the different possible ways of using a set of notes, or to determine the proportions of a piece," he says. His award-winning Five Lies is scored for a large ensemble including accordion. The work, which was the result of a collaboration with a virtuoso accordionist also named Schimmel, though of no relation, is "humorous, obsessed with mathematical structures, and quite strangely captivating," says Jaffe.

For each of the five movements in the work, Schimmel used a different set of notes contained in a perfect fifth. "Each movement is about a particular lie," he says. "The first is about political and corporate lies; the second is about trying to be someone you're not; the third is about religious extremism; the fourth is about gossip; and the fifth is about lying to one's lover."