It was as if a trance had fallen over the Mountain View High School band room.
All was calm, still: no sound but typing as a group of six instrumental music students worked furiously on original compositions, knowing the music they were writing would be performed for an audience in less than two days.
“It was dead silent,” said senior Garon Fok. “You could hear brains crunching.”
Just after school let out Friday, members of the 24-Hour Composers Concert watched as the six composers drew performer names out of a hat. Through this randomized process, each was paired with three musician classmates for whom they would write an original, two- to five-minute composition – in the space of that evening.
The pressure was on.
Fok, inspired by his assigned percussionist’s bold, clanging brake drum, sought to tell the story of the Greek god Hephaestus, hard at work in his blacksmith’s forge, trying to win the love of Aphrodite. Another composer went to work on a sonata for the cowbell.
Dana McDonnell, director of the Mountain View High instrumental music program, said she had expected students to lose focus at some point during the long night of composing, but instead watched them stay riveted, moving only between the computers with their notation software and the instrument room, where they experimented with the instruments to create novel effects.
“They didn’t even come out for pizza,” McDonnell said.
Facing the music
Saturday morning, the musicians rejoined their classmates and saw the finished compositions for the first time, the sheet music still hot off the presses. It was time to practice – in one day, they would be onstage performing.
Sophomores Alex Pun, Alexandria Myers and Josh Stukenborg settled into a practice room with Fok’s completed “Hephaestus,” a composition for trombone, electric violin and percussion – lots of percussion.
The musicians said the experiment was radically different from their routine as instrumental music students. Many had never played together, as members of string and wind ensembles were thrown together for the first time.
“It’s more intense, a smaller timeframe,” Stukenborg said. “It makes you want to push yourself. You’re more exposed as a musician. You have to practice a lot to not be a mess at performance tomorrow.”
It was also a crash course in independence, Pun noted. Communication was more demanding, he said, with no conductor leading the group as they rehearsed.
“We have to really watch each other and breathe together to start the music,” he said.
Myers noted the challenges of composing for unfamiliar instruments. Initially, some of the violin parts were physically impossible to play, so she and Fok worked Saturday to make modifications. In future years, she added, she would be interested in the creative challenge of composing but humbled by the difficulty of transferring her violin expertise to compositions for chord and band instruments.
“I like playing pieces with a little more personality” than the usual classics, Myers said, noting that she appreciated the backstory of the titular Hephaestus, who in Greek myth was cast out from Mount Olympus for his disfigurement but became powerful through his skill as a smith.
Stukenborg, whose percussion instruments were used to evoke the god’s anvil, agreed that the challenging aspects of the composition were enjoyable.
“It’s cool what (Fok) wrote,” he said. “It’s fun in a hard way … and I get to whack a brake drum a lot.”
A professional’s toolkit
The idea for the 24-hour concert, according to McDonnell, arose from her own experience with similar challenges as a student at the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music.
Ordinarily, she said, “you won’t get this experience till you get to college and major in composition.”
Yet as an educator, McDonnell saw value in challenging high school students early. For students who are still deciding whether to continue pursuing music, she said, it gives them a taste of what a professional’s work feels like.
“It gives them interest in doing more than ‘I come to class, sit down and listen to the teacher,’” she said. “If they’re experiencing this now, they’re learning to push themselves. … It motivates them to make themselves uncomfortable.”
The professional-caliber composition software necessary for such an undertaking includes programs Logic Pro, Sibelius, Finale and Noteflight, the purchase of which was made possible by an Innovative Learning Grant from the Mountain View-Los Altos High School Foundation.
With Sunday morning’s performance looming, students said Saturday that they were both daunted and excited by the high stakes.
“The pieces that we typically play in concert are from very renowned composers,” Fok said. “But with this … the audience knows, the performers know, the composers know, that this piece isn’t going to be ‘good’ because of name recognition. It’s going to be taken at face value. And the music that you hear also hasn’t previously existed (prior to) the past 48 hours. I’m excited for it. This is the first time our school’s done anything like this.”