John McDonald, composer and pianist, Associate Professor of Music at Tufts and a Tisch College Faculty Fellow, strives to address social confrontations in his compositions and thereby move his listeners out of their comfort zones.
“When a group of people tries to get a handle on an issue, everyone has an individual angle,” he explains. “We all struggle to understand. Quite often, composers and performers speak a language that not everyone is used to.
Consequently, when you listen to Prof. McDonald’s music, it is, he says, not what you would typically hear on the radio–not even public radio.
“Instead of writing an op ed or a letter, I try to put it in my work. I have to also reach down deeper to play in a certain way, or rethink how I have to present my ideas if I am to reach my audience, especially if they’re not music colleagues,” he says.
“I call it composing to learn. The traditional view of a composer is he goes away, and thinks and writes on his own. If I did that I’d be composing the same piece over and over. I like the things that change from, by, and through music.”
“In many ways John is using his fellowship to be a musician in residence in the Faculty Fellows program,” notes Molly Mead, who oversees the program. “John will use the civic engagement of other faculty as inspiration to compose and perform music. Through this process of composition and performance he will help faculty better understand their own civic engagement work and communicate that work to the larger world.”
To pursue his vision, Prof. McDonald, the first Faculty Fellow from the Music Department, is using his fellowship to reach out to broader audiences and engage — more likely, challenge — them to think about music in new and different ways.
One way he plans to do that is by asking his students to ride an MBTA route in the greater Boston area over a period of time, and then write a piece of music that conveys their experience. Specifically, he wants them to discover new communities and concerns relating to those communities, and then translate those discoveries into music.
He also plans to develop a course called Classical Music for Social Change. Taking a cue from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Pesenka” (“little song”), which was written to benefit hunger-stricken Armenians, Prof. McDonald wants the course to educate students on the breadth of music inspired by social issues.
“Music for social change can be about taking the small form and giving it power of purpose,” says Prof. McDonald. “There is much dissonance and there are hard edges in my work. These qualities are meant to confront the listener, yet harshness is mitigated by brevity. This is why many of my compositions are short.”
Prof. McDonald relates the genesis of his interest in music linked to social issues to a faculty discussion held on the Tufts campus in the late 1990s: “I started to think about public issues and began seeing myself as a university composer. I began to develop music that could embolden causes, celebrate people, or tackle problems.”
By way of example, Stephen Hawking, the British theoretical physicist, who had been invited to the Tufts campus as part of a lecture tour, said he would visit only if something “special” would happen that wouldn’t happen elsewhere, Prof. McDonald recalls. “A colleague suggested that I write a piece for Hawking’s visit as the special something.”
“So I developed in his honor a sonatina in three short movements, for soprano saxophone and piano, which I subtitled “Big Crunch,” a concept meaning the final implosion of the universe, as discussed in Hawking’s book ‘A Brief History of Time.’”
Following the 2004 tsunami in South Asia, Prof. McDonald was moved to compose a piece — Renewal In Vadimudi Time — based on survivors in Sri Lanka needing to start over their lives. He has a special affinity for the country since his wife is Sri Lankan.
“It starts with a bracing opening using big, thick chords. It demands a physicality at the piano I’ve learned to love. The music then changes, becoming more rhythmical, thinner, even danceable. Finally, it breaks into a Sri Lankan folk song. It tells the story of what happened, and of attempts at renewal that are ongoing.”
He says that this piece forces players to relearn how to read music because many passages are notated in clefs unfamiliar to pianists. In like fashion, he asks audiences to think anew about what they hear.
Originally published October 2006