Materials and Portfolio
for the Department of Music at Columbia University
Statement of Academic Purpose
To The Admissions Committee for the Department of Music at Columbia University
Last fall, in September 2016, the late theater composer Michael Friedman was doing a talk-back after The Black Crook, a contemporary remounting of America’s “first musical,” for which I had composed new songs and co-arranged its original 19th scores with Justin Levin. At the talkback, one of the audience members asked, “Why theater?” Friedman said, “Theater Compels”: not only are you compelled to write music, but to listen to your collaborators, question each other, and constantly adapt. Composing in theater is addictive because you are challenged to become a better human, often operating under high stress and tight deadlines while employing your entire compositional resources — a folk song here, a string quartet here, and a Gregorian chant there. I am applying to Columbia's Graduate Program in Composition because I seek the advice and support of a department, of peer composers, and I seek the resources of a university as I continue to compose for live, staged, multimedia work in the city.
I moved to New York 7 years ago to pursue my MFA in Poetry. That same semester, I was asked by theater company Van Cougar to arrange choral works for their play at Incubator Arts Project in St. Marks Church. That project led to another and then another. Thus began my career of composing for theater. I have since finished my MFA in Poetry and I am still composing every day. This year, I have composed for Columbia University/Barnard College’s production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, I have music directed and arranged for SoHo Repertory Theater’s annual gala with grammy award winning folk-artist Steve Earle, and I have completed two theater residencies at North American Cultural Laboratory and The Tank, focusing on composing choral works for in-development plays.
In January, I am developing a 15-minute chorale for Karinne Keithley Syers's new play The Lydian Gale Parr. Karinne, while visiting New Orleans, found a brown journal in the public library with the owner’s name, Lydian Gale Parr, written in the cover. But the journal was empty. So Karinne wrote a play that could be anyone’s journal. It is a manifesto of community that begins with the lines:
“I came out of a high-walled city.
I saw the walls from the outside.
I was in the air, turning away.
I have done nothing.”
These lines evoke a sense of timeless suffering, both a heroism and a rupture. And in the context of a group of actors sharing that language, I feel endlessly moved — I feel compelled. For this project, I am writing for specific actors and we will present a private workshop on January 5th, 2018 at New Dramatists.
On March 28th, I will be presenting a songs-in-process performance of my staged song-cycle, Raid 2.0/Myrmidon, which is about the ways in which collaborative action in video games and virtual realities, including mass multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), help individuals who have experienced trauma to re-engage and re-establish trust in the “real” world. In an MMORPG, there is a dungeon raid — an organized event where many people collaborate to achieve a unified goal. There is a direct correlation between the collaborative skills needed to conduct a dungeon raid and the collaborative skills needed to perform a chorale or play. In fact, choral performance is, in itself, a mirror of the dungeon raid — in order to succeed, the group has to successfully follow a sequence of events by remaining attentive to one another. This leads to trust. In the case of trauma, where trust has been lost in community or in reality itself, this can be an essential tool.
The project is being developed in tandem with choreographer Coco Karol, who has worked with Amanda Palmer and Björk, as well as director Sarah Hughes, who has co-produced VR applications for the New York Times, and virtual reality engineer Todd Bryant. We wish to culminate the song cycle in a free public access component, where 3-D footage of the performance will be available online. I’ve attached a workshop video of Raid 2.0/Myrmidon as the primary sample of my application portfolio. I believe it best demonstrates my work of composing for multimedia and live performance and how that necessarily involves a different compositional process — one which is in conversation with the stage, story, choreographer, director, and performers.
Because of my interest in poetry, I am passionate about language-based plays and discovering how music can compliment them. What’s more, I love to compose within certain limits: “What is the technical ability of this performer’s violin playing?” “What is the timbre of this actor’s voice?”
It reminds me of, when studying music at Lamont School of Music in Denver, I would walk into my Theory II class at 8am and the professor would close the door, lock it, hand out small pieces of manuscript paper, and say, “Compose an 8 bar phrase employing the Italian 6th and finish it with a plagal cadence. You have five minutes.” Then she would put on a kitchen timer. That kind of limitation is a mode I now thrive in. A director might say, “This scene isn’t working, we need a vocal melody to help transition us into it. Can you compose something right now? We open tomorrow.”
I am applying to Columbia University in the hopes of finding more ways to enrich and sharpen my compositions as I continue to collaborate with playwrights and theaters in the New York downtown theater community. I admire the multifaceted ways that the faculty at Columbia University engages with both multimedia performance and traditional performance. I visited the department last fall and was compelled by the intelligence and curiosity and range of skillsets within the department and the reverence the students held for one another and their work. It is a place I can envision myself.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I hope to join the department in Fall 2018.
RAID 2.0/MYRMIDON >>
Presently in development, RAID 2.0 / MYRMIDON is a staged song cycle about the ways in which collaborative action in video games and virtual realities, including mass multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), help individuals who have experienced trauma to re-engage and re-establish trust in the “real” world.
(listen to these clips while reading, then jump down to the workshop video) >>
Written and composed by Alaina Ferris and directed by Sarah Hughes, Raid 2.0/Myrmidon follows a team of avatars as they prepare for dungeon raids, defeat dragons, return to their guild hall, and prepare again. The avatars’ movement, choreographed by Coco Karol, is inspired by early MMORPGs released in the late 1990s, as well as the movement of traditional court dances. The avatars sing, discuss war tactics, and play on their instruments — harp, synthesizer, bass, and violin. Their comfortable alternate reality is highlighted by projection design (often termed “augmented reality”). But that virtual haven is disrupted by flashes of reality, when all the lights turn off and the performers recite adapted testimonies by victims of sexual assault. When the song cycle ends, we realize that the avatars’ goal was not, in fact, to defeat dragons, but to find strength and self-empowerment through collaboration.
Statistically, 1 in 6 women are sexually assaulted, however that is only what is reported. Sexual violence is prevalent and yet discourse about it is minimal. Individuals who undergo trauma often lose trust in the real world, distancing themselves from both their surroundings and even their bodies — a term called "dissociation." MMORPGs and other role playing games provide a virtual space where individuals can interact with other humans without the threat of violence. The video game is not only a haven, but a tool for healing.
This is a piece about suffering, recovery and, ultimately, friendship — the songs and text highlight the complex relationships between the “virtual” and the "real". RAID 2.0 conjures the world of the video game; a MYRMIDON is one of Achilles’s stalwart soldiers in the Iliad and here represents finding strength through collective action.
>>The performance will culminate in a public access component designed by virtual reality engineer and technical director Todd Bryant. 3-D footage of the performance will be distilled and available for free download.
RAID 2.0/MYRMIDON 15-Minute Workshop Video>>
Download the scores and project description here.
SECTIONS : >>
MEET THE AVATARS : //////////////////////////////////////// 00:05
SPELL : CATATONIA : //////////////////////////////////////// 01:26
HUNTING SONG : //////////////////////////////////////// 04:04 (scored)
AVATAR DANCE : //////////////////////////////////////// 07:23
HYMN TO ARTEMIS : //////////////////////////////////////// 09:40 (scored)
MYRMIDON : //////////////////////////////////////// 11:25
Full project website http://www.myrmidonshow.com
Raid 2.0/Myrmidon will have a reading of its script at the NYU Media and Games Center in early February, 2018.
Then, it has a week-long residency at the The Tank in March, 2018, which will culminate in a Songs In Process performance on March 28th.
SHAKESPEARE'S PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE
Below are three recordings of original compositions commissioned by Barnard College / Columbia University for their 2017 production of Shakespeare's Pericles. For the production, my goal was to write music that could be taught within 2 focused sessions of music rehearsal. The undergraduate students were not all theater majors and not all trained in music, so I wrote these to be ensemble-driven and approachable.
1. Marina's Song: Act V, Scene I.
In this scene, there is a famous stage direction that simply says, "Marina sings her song." There are no lyrics. When researching old productions to see how this had been addressed, I found a painting by Thomas Stothard from 1825, where Marina is holding a lyre. As a nod to that painting, I wrote the song featuring harp, with lyrics written in the style of a Heroic sonnet. Marina sings this to her father, Prince Pericles, who has been hiding from the world. This demo recording is sung by myself and baroque vocalist Lacy Rose.
I was born unto a sea of ill so vast
To swim clear seemed impossible
My loving mother, death herself
She now holds the waves, her long blue cloak
What meditation can arrest age’s cruel knife?
What strong hand can hold time from change?
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
Nothing can prepare you for that stage
O, wretched man, the world clearly gave you love
And, having given, confounded its gift
If you seek to live life without suffering,
You’d sooner catch the moon overhead
I’ve suffered, too. I still stand
Have you no time from grief to lift your chin?
Have you not a heart that still beats?
I’ve been through darkness and still found grace
We go through darkness and still find grace to lean on
You are stronger than you think
You are stronger than you think
2. Of Your Fair Courtesy: Act 2, Scene 3
Click Here for the Score
Sung by Good King Simonedes and the ensemble as Simonedes's daughter Thaisa and Pericles dance. It is the production's love song, so I wanted it to sound a little like Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah with a little Andrea Bocelli thrown in. The recording features Isaac Calvin singing lead, Brian Cavanagh-Strong, Andrew Sheron, myself, and Lacy Rose.
3. Music of the Spheres: Act V.
Click Here for the Score
The final scene of the play, sung by the ensemble as the family is reunited after years of hardship. In the production, the scene's dialogue is spoken over this. Recording features Isaac Calvin, Brian Cavanagh-Strong, Andrew Sheron, myself, and Lacy Rose.
Recorded at Mirrortone Studios
Mixed and Mastered by Roman Molino Dunn
THE OFFENDING GESTURE
My final work sample, Misery My Maiden, was written for Mac Wellman's The Offending Gesture, which was premiered at the Connelly Theater in January 2016 and was a New York Times Critic's Pick. As you can see from the picture above, the play was set in WWII, with the set itself modeled after an office in the Theresienstadt (Terezín) Concentration Camp. In writing the choral pieces for this play, I was researching Rafael Schächter, a music director and theater composer who, while interred in (Terezín), amassed a choir to learn Verdi's Requiem. While doing this research, I was listening to Henryk Mikołaj Górecki and thinking about how the chorale can be an expression of both grief and defiance.
That is the end of my application portfolio.
Please reach out if you have any needs or questions!