Toward Enlightenment: Music Transforms SJU
by Nicole Katze ‘11 (M.A.)
In Mahayana Buddhism, practicing the six paramitas, or six transcendent perfections, is the path to crossing from the shore of suffering to the shore of enlightenment. By consciously cultivating qualities of generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditation and knowledge, a person is able to reach nirvana or enlightenment, while serving the needs of others.
For award-winning composer Suzanne Sorkin, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of music, theatre and film, the paramitas are inspiration for her most recent composition, “Toward the Other Shore,” a contemporary classical piece for solo violin designed to pull the listener beyond limitation to the shore of enlightenment.
In this composition, long and expansive melodic phrases breathe one into the next, coupled with throbbing left-hand pizzicato — plucking the string, rather than bowing. The metamorphosis of left-hand pizzicato over the course of the work is balanced with the on-going timbre or tone color, variation and development of the melody heard at the beginning of the piece. Audiences engage in a process of metamorphosis and transcendence through the careful use of timbre, the distinct individual qualities of a sound, Sorkin explains.
The piece was commissioned by the Violin Futura Project, a new music initiative of virtuoso violinist and composer Piotr Szewczyk, and won second-place recognition with the 2012 Musica Domani International Composition Prize, and was a prizewinner in the KH Tan Composition Competion for solo violin works. A well-recognized composer of this kind of “new music,” Sorkin often writes with specific performers in mind.
“Working closely and collaboratively with performers is essential to me as a musician,” says Sorkin. “Many of my compositions originate as commissions for chamber ensembles because of my desire for the collaborative process.”
Another of her works, “Piano Trio,” employs the same exploration of timbre she navigates in “Toward the Other Shore.” Performed by the Mendelssohn Trio on their 2012 European tour in Berlin, Germany, and Scharnstein and Vienna, Austria, “Piano Trio” relies on timbre as actively as most other compositions rely on melody and harmony. The full range of the piano, following a strong motif, accomplishes the same otherworldly sound experienced in Sorkin’s other works, inviting listeners into what she calls a “sound world that explores the unique interplay of musical tone color.”
At SJU, Sorkin’s students benefit from the expertise of a musician whose creative work informs the educational path they follow as music majors in the Department of Music, Theatre and Film. This new academic department already enrolls more than 50 students in both the music and the theatre and film majors. Through a curriculum designed to help form whole, well-rounded performers and composers, her students take on the same collaborative process she emphasizes by working together across projects and across specialties: music history, theory, composition and performance.
“The music major is designed to provide a comprehensive curriculum that deepens musical understanding and awareness, fosters creative expression and encourages critical analysis and inquiry,” says Sorkin.
It’s not unusual for a composition class to have written the pieces played by student performers. Last fall, the department featured works written to celebrate the 150th birthday of French composer Claude Debussy, including a piece for solo flute composed by Keara Parciak ’14, a music and French major, and performed by Martin Iwanicki ’14, a physics major and music minor. Each week, the two students met with Sorkin, who coached them through polishing the work.
Like Sorkin’s “Toward the Other Shore,” the department’s faculty strives to take their audience — their students — from one level of knowledge to the next.
“All of our faculty are accomplished in their fields, and at the same time, committed to excellence in teaching,” says Sorkin. “They bring both their careers and their attention to the mentoring relationships that are so important to studying music, as well as theatre and film.”
Selected Awards and Commissions
- ASCAP PLUS Award (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), multiple awards
- Chamber Music Now, commission
- Earplay Donald Aird Memorial Composers Competition, runner-up
- Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, commission
- KH Tan Composition Competition for Solo Violin, prize-winner
- Meet the Composer, MetLife Creative
- Connections Grant
- Musica Domani Competition, second prize
- Third Millennium Ensemble National Composition Competition, second prize