A New Beginning for SYZYGY

SYZYGY hosted its second program of the semester Oct. 24. The concertThe Tide Rises Again: Current American Voicespresented works by prominent American composers, including Nina C. Young, Elizabeth Ogonek and Alvin Singleton. The opening composition “String Quartet” by Theodore Morris, a SMU composition student, received its World Premiere.

George Nickson, director of SYZYGY and chair of the Meadows percussion department, performs for their first time since COVID-19. Nickson describes SYZYGY’s return as a new beginning.

We would be doing a disservice to ourselves if we tried to go back to exactly the way it was before in how we present our art,” Nickson said. “We have to learn from these experiences. We had time to pause and reflect on what we did well and what we could do better. Now it’s time for us to implement that.”

SYZYGY is the contemporary ensemble of the Meadows School of the Arts that focuses on the future of music and brings vibrancy to Meadows. It allows both undergraduate and graduate composers and performers the opportunity to hone their craft and gain experience playing non-traditional music. Nickson believes SYZYGY brings vibrancy to the Meadows school.

“So much of what we do [here] is focusing on and learning traditions of the past: learning the rules and the structures, the amazing music that’s been written for so many years and the amazing art that’s been created,” Nickson said. “But what’s really exciting I think, for the students and faculty members, is to be able to also share and experience creating new work.”

Meadows’ students are encouraged to participate in SYZYGY performances by faculty members. Many students signed up as composers and performers for the 24HC (24-hour concert) hosted on Sept. 17.

Professor Lane Harder with the composers of the 24HC. (Credit: Anika Saiprabhu)
Professor Lane Harder with the composers of the 24HC. (Credit: Anika Saiprabhu)

The 24HC was a new experience for many of the students. Composers were given 12 hours to prepare a piece of music and performers had the remaining 12 hours to learn it.

“Performing is normal for me. Learning a song in 12 hours and performing, not so normal,” said Holli Selmon, a sophomore studying vocal performance and music education.

Selmon was one of one of the two vocalists for Max Whittaker’s composition “Fixations on a Pulse.” This experience took both Selmon and graduate student Matthew Foss, composer of “Ships in the Night, out of their comfort zone in a good way.

“I was determined that I was not going to do this again at three in the morning and I think that’s going to change,” Foss said. “I’ll probably do this all my years of my masters because this has been an extremely enjoyable experience as a composer.”

The 24HC and other compositional opportunities support student growth in music. Art continues to live and change throughout personal experiences. Lane Harder, senior lecturer in music theory and composition and previous SYZYGY director, wants students to apply what they learn in the classroom to their own style.

“It doesn’t have to sound like Beethoven. I don’t want it to sound like Beethoven,” Harder said. “I tell composers all the time, ‘You have a unique voice and world view. There’s never been anyone with your particular set of influences, so feel free to embrace them.

There will be more opportunities for people to hear music composed and performed by SMU students. The Emerging Sounds concert, hosted by the music composition department, will present new works Nov. 4 by SMU student composers. SYZYGY will also have two more performances next semester in January and March.

The journey of creating and performing contemporary music can be nerve-wracking, but Nickson believes there is beauty in the process. He encourages people to have an open mind and an open ear.

SYZYGY is like going to a contemporary art museum. It’s not just the expected portraits on the wall or what we’re trained to think is Renaissance and older forms of art,Nickson said. “There are installations of all kinds of things. It has no genre. It has no boundaries. Like the music we do, you can hear the entire world.”