Professors Jihea Hong-Park and Steven Ricks worked together to help their students find their musical voices to respond to current issues through a concert of new piano compositions
During the Winter 2021 semester, piano professor Jihea Hong-Park wanted to know what more she could do to help her students continue to learn and grow together. After sending out a survey, Hong-Park received several notes from students that they would appreciate more opportunities to collaborate on artistic and service projects.
With this feedback in mind, Hong-Park worked with composition professor Steven Ricks toward the goal to “initiate a collaborative project that allowed our students to use music as a catalyst for change in society.” Together, they developed the concert “Stories of Our Time: New Music for Piano Reflecting the Current Moment.” The concert, which took place on February 3, was the result of months of work and collaboration between the professors and students.
“I have always sought to establish a piano studio where students felt engaged and took ownership of their learning,” said Hong-Park. “I wanted my piano students to experience an up-close and personal experience collaborating with their composition colleagues in preparation for ‘real-life.’”
Students from Hong-Park’s piano studio and from Ricks’ composition seminar were paired together so that each pianist and composer could work together on composing new music for the concert. The professors gave each composer-pianist duo the same prompt: create a piece that engages with a current issue that is important to you.
Jacob Warnick performs Randall Smith’s “Nosso Alento.” Photo courtesy of Steven Ricks.
As a result, the students took on several different topics with their music. From issues of race to spirituality to environmental concerns to mental health, the composers and pianists generated a wealth of musical responses to current needs and discussions.
Randall Smith, one of the composers for the concert, worked with pianist Jacob Warnick on a piece called “Nosso Alento.” The piece, whose name translated from Portuguese means “our breath,” brings attention to the necessity of the Amazon rainforest, often referred to as “the lungs of the earth.”
When composing this piece, Smith said that he wanted to focus on the breath and reflect the intrinsic connections that each living, breathing thing has to one another. “Every living thing on this earth is connected,” Smith said. “There’s no way that you can change some part of this equation without affecting the rest of it.”
Lauren Cain performs Gustaf Neilson’s “Der Tod Des Dichters.” Photo courtesy of Steven Ricks.
Pianist Lauren Cain had the opportunity to work with composers Gustaf Neilson and Oswaldo Machado on the pieces “Der Tod Des Dichters” and “Sequoia.” Cain said that the experience allowed her greater connection to the pieces and appreciation for the work that the composers put into their music.
“I definitely connected more personally with the pieces than I think I would have if I hadn’t been a part of the process,” said Cain. “I think looking at the score is going to be different for me from now on because I know that these composers are extremely intentional about everything they’re doing.”
Alongside their students, Hong-Park and Ricks also collaborated on music that addressed cultural identity. The piece they worked on, “Overlapping Voices: Reflections on Racial Identity,” came from a very personal place for Hong-Park as an Asian American artist.
“I wanted to share our diverse voices, perspectives and struggles through the power of music,” said Hong-Park. “This piece provided much healing for me as I reflected on the 2021 Atlanta shooting incident as well as my own journey as an Asian American performing artist.”
As they look to the future, both Hong-Park and Ricks expressed hope that concerts like “Stories of Our Time” would continue. Hong-Park mentioned that they are already beginning to brainstorm for a collaborative concert next year that will build on this year’s experiences.
“I do hope that collaborative concerts and events like this will increase in the future. I think they’re a lot of fun for the students,” said Ricks. “But I think they also are really meaningful for the audience and for everyone involved, because . . . it pushes everyone to grow and to see things from a new perspective.”