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Student reflects on summer program at CalArts

College allows artists to explore other cultures through InnerSpark; Learn to appreciate silence as

Posted: September 1, 2009 6:54 p.m.
Updated: September 2, 2009 4:30 a.m.

High school students, from left to right, Valerie Pooudomsak, Yvonne Eadon and Kevin Phan spent a month of their summer participating in the California State Summer School for the Arts, known as InnerSpark, hosted by the California Institute of the Arts.

 

For a month this summer, the California Institute of the Arts hosted the California State Summer School for the Arts (also known as CSSSA or InnerSpark), a program that offers tremendous opportunities for a select group of 550 high school students, mostly from California.

The program allows students to submerge themselves into their art, be it dance, visual arts, music, animation, creative writing or theater.

However, CSSSA was about much more than perfecting one’s talent. We explored our arts to the very boundaries of their definitions.

We opened our minds.

One of our core classes was gamelan, an orchestra of percussion instruments from halfway around the world (Indonesia).
Gamelan is comprised of resonant metallic mallet instruments, gongs, singing bowls and drums. The elementary techniques required to perform in the gamelan orchestra are complex yet straightforward enough to learn.

The gamelan orchestra is so ancient that its origins are interwoven with the legends of Hindu gods. We were forbidden to step over the instruments to avoid showing disrespect for their sacred purpose (though also to ensure that we didn’t knock them over).

We also learned African drumming and dance. The dancing was not choreographed sequentially, as we are used to in the Western world: We were taught to respond to specific rhythms from the main drum with a specific dance move. This proved difficult because the drum beats sounded remarkably similar. The music students performed in our gamelan and African drumming ensembles at the end of the four-week program for a small but appreciative audience.

I think all of the music students benefited from these classes, however much we may have complained about the awkward dance moves or the difficulty of mastering certain techniques.

In a broader sense, such exposure to differing cultures is invaluable in facilitating a well-rounded perspective, both in music and life in general.

Our perspectives and assumptions were challenged and changed even further by the experimental music we listened to and discussed with our teachers.

Most of us see classical music as old, beautiful, complex and sometimes boring. However, contemporary classical music exists as a living art form, and it is far from its ancestor, both in sound and definition.

Contemporary classical music is often ugly to the untrained ear, but can be much more complex than it sounds, and far from boring.

For instance, the music students were introduced to minimalism (an important development in latter-twentieth century music that centers around patterns and repetition), when we saw the Philip Glass ensemble perform at the Hollywood Bowl. This proved to be an incredible experience, both atmospherically and musically.

Additionally, piano students performed Erik Satie’s Vexations, a one-page piano piece repeated 840 times (about 24 hours of continuous music).

Students learned it and played in hour-long shifts. Some of us were granted the opportunity to sleep in the performance space and listen to the entire piece as Satie meant it to be heard.

Allegedly, the objective of Vexations is, simply, the ending. The silence that succeeds Vexations is so complete and full that it bores into the furthest philosophical reaches of the mind, altering one’s perception of the definition of music.

Satie was a huge influence on John Cage, the renowned composer, poet and artist of the last century. Cage believed that music was everywhere, that every sound, if framed as such, was music.

Many music students had never heard of Cage and were profoundly confused by the performance of his piece 4:33, in which the pianist opens the lid of the piano, sets a stopwatch and sits on the piano bench for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds, fingers never even grazing the keys.

This piece may sound ridiculous, but the underlying concepts conceived by Cage are fascinating. He wanted the audience to listen to the arbitrary sounds in the concert space, like the hum of the air conditioning or the stifled sneeze of the woman sitting two rows behind, and hear them as music.

Confronted with Cage, many students were skeptical. Some became angry, asserting that his ideas were ridiculous and his wide definition of music senseless.

Others completely embraced his convictions. Still others met him with apathy, claiming that he was just a lazy man who wanted glory for revolutionary ideas but didn’t want to do any actual detailed composition work.

Even though all these contrasting perspectives on Cage were validated, we were taught that he was ultimately a formidable force in contemporary classical music of the 20th century, and that he has influenced, directly or indirectly, virtually every subsequent experimental composer.

This was one of the most fascinating ongoing debates I have ever participated in. My fellow students never failed to impress me with their arguments, whether I agreed with them or not.

In fact, I have never met such a magnificent group of teenagers before. For the most part, the teen years are the years of apathy. I have observed it in both my peers and myself.

This group of teens, however, displayed such towering passion for their respective crafts that apathy of any kind was crushed beneath the powerful force of their dedication.

Every student at CSSSA faces a crossroads that is rapidly approaching. For some, college looms ahead. For others, their careers.

This crossroads is terrifying to many, seasoned with excitement for almost everyone and a void of mystery to all.

However, I think faith in one’s passion, whatever it may be, breeds focus. If the fire of passion burns bright, it might shed some light on what lies in the future.
Yvonne Eadon is a senior at Hart High School.

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