Symphony of change

Exeter’s vibrant music program decides where to go next.

Sarah Pruitt ’95
May 4, 2021
The Bowld seen from outside in the evening.

The Bowld, the Class of 1959 Music Building Addition’s performance space.

It is early March, and Kristofer Johnson is feeling hopeful. As director of choral activities and chair of the Music Department, he’s steered Exeter’s musical community through the upheaval caused by a global pandemic and a calendar year spent physically distanced, through remote learning or on-campus hybrid learning.

Now, as the winter term draws to a close, the choirs and orchestra have just started meeting in person for the first time in nearly a year. Singers are doubling up on masks, layering fabric masks over surgical ones, while musicians who play wind instruments use bell covers to block the exit of any aerosol droplets. Everyone stands nine feet apart, and they meet in the rooms with the most ventilation. These precautions are small prices to pay, however, for the renewed energy and excitement of in-person interaction.

“Every rehearsal has a few extra steps, and a few extra minutes of making sure that things are safe and the kids are distanced,” Johnson says. “But the students are so hungry to make music and to be together doing it that it’s been really joyful.”

Kristofer Johnson conducting outdoors under a tent.

This spring, as Exeter’s students, faculty and staff — like the rest of the world — tentatively emerge into a new kind of normalcy, music makers and fans alike have a lot to look forward to. As part of a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion at both the school and the departmental level, Johnson and his colleagues are working to decenter the traditional Western musical canon, open up the department to more modern musical styles, and provide support and encouragement to anyone who’s making music or wants to make music at Exeter.

“We are really undertaking a comprehensive review of how we program for all of our ensembles,” explains Johnson. “It’s an ongoing effort, and we’re all digging in and trying to look honestly at where we’ve been, and what it is we’re willing to stand behind.”

Making music the modern way

In the fall of 2020, Eric Schultz, director of the new electronic and emerging music program, was surprised and delighted to see that 64 students signed up for the new Electronic Music Composers Collective (aka EMC2) course. “That’s 5% of the school,” he points out. Such robust numbers for a brand-new course taught by a new faculty member, Schultz says, “confirmed for all of us that there’s a lot of interest in doing this kind of music [at Exeter].”

Before Schultz’s arrival, his future colleagues in the Music Department had designed EMC2 as an evening workshop that functions similarly to the Concert Choir, Symphony Orchestra and Choral Union, but focuses on making contemporary styles of music — including pop, hip-hop, electronic dance music (EDM), ambient and experimental — primarily using technology. Schultz has taken charge of the course, and renamed it Modern Music Making to encompass a wider range of musical styles beyond the electronic.

... there’s a lot of interest in doing this kind of music [at Exeter].”

As a longtime professor of music technology at Chabot College, a large community college in the San Francisco Bay Area, Schultz had launched a similar program to teach music that had previously been considered “nonacademic.” Trained as a composer, he’s also played the saxophone in bands ranging from rock to jazz to blues to country, written music for symphony orchestras and choirs, and released his own electro-acoustic solo album, Estuary, in 2018.

Schultz sees this multifaceted approach to music as the heart of the Modern Music Making course. “The whole idea is to open the doors of the Music Department to all who want to make music,” he says. “I want the students to feel very free and supported to make what they want to make and explore what they want to explore.”

A broad range of students has embraced the course. “There are students who have been making music with a laptop since they were in elementary school,” Schultz says. Some have even released their music commercially, on Spotify, Apple Music or other applications, while others are accomplished classical musicians. At the other end of the spectrum, he says, “there are students who cannot read music notation, who have never used a computer to make music, who don’t play an instrument, and who are just curious.”

Eric Schultz

Students use different applications and software to compose their music, and upload it as MP3s to Canvas, as they would any other school assignment. Though most of the classes began winter term online, the first in-person sessions started in March, and Schultz was finally able to play the music on large, high-quality speakers for the group to critique. “As students who are deeply into one musical genre are exposed to other genres, they’re seeing connections, and they’re getting creative ideas about how to broaden their own sense of music,” Schultz says. “That is a beautiful thing.”

Plans are in the works for how to release the music made by students during spring term for the larger Exeter community to enjoy. Schultz has the long-term vision of building a recording studio and creative space, but for now, he and his colleagues are carefully considering, “how we can present this music with the same level of prestige as the other music that we present at this school,” he says.

Looking ahead to the fall, the Music Department will welcome another new faculty member, Marcus Rabb, as director of jazz and bands. A talented jazz trumpet player with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Howard University, Rabb has taught music for more than 20 years, most recently at Middlesex School, and has performed with Aretha Franklin, Tito Puente and Wynton Marsalis, among others.

It’s really exciting to get out of the historical canon and be trying to create something new and fresh and interesting.”

“Between Eric and Marcus, we’re going to see contemporary music ensembles, like bands and combos, become centralized,” Johnson says. “So [the students have] faculty time and coaching and support in the department, and appearances in our concert series in a way that you’re used to seeing the Symphony Orchestra and the Concert Choir.”

“There is a lot of momentum toward expanding what kind of music is taught in musical academia,” adds Schultz. “It’s really exciting to think we’re going to be on the forefront of that.”

Looking back, and looking ahead

As 2020 approached, and each department planned for how to commemorate 50 years of coeducation at Exeter, Johnson and his colleagues decided to commission an original composition for the Concert Choir and Chamber Orchestra to perform. In the interest of representing new viewpoints and styles, they sought a young composer, and someone who didn’t identify as male. After interviewing a number of people, and narrowing it down to a pool of finalists, the core music faculty chose Tanner Porter, a composer-performer, songwriter and visual artist from California whose work blurs the boundaries between classical and contemporary music.

As Porter began meeting virtually with students in the choir and orchestra last fall, she also met with members of the Feminist Club and students in the class Music and Protest, taught by Music Instructor Rohan Smith. “The idea from the beginning was to get to work with as many students as possible, even those who don’t necessarily have a musical interest,” Porter says. “Those who might be interested in the piece just in terms of the concept, and being a part of the conversation.”

Cellist Augusta Manchester

Porter started by giving the students an introduction to her process of composition, in which storytelling plays a central role. “The idea was to build up a common language,” she says. As she began writing the piece itself, she brought selections to the Zoom sessions for feedback.

“The students were from the beginning a very active part of the workshopping process for me,” Porter says. “It was definitely a good learning experience for me, and very humbling to get to open up my creative process to 70 young people.”

As part of her research for the composition, Porter interviewed several women from Exeter’s early graduating classes after coeducation was adopted in 1970, including Theater and Dance Instructor Sarah Ream ’75. She also interviewed Jacquelyn “Jackie” Thomas ’45, ’62, ’69 (Hon.); P’78, P’79, P’81, and Susan Herney ’69, ’74,’ 83 (Hon.), two of the first women on Exeter’s faculty. These conversations, and especially those she had with current students, inspired the central themes of Porter’s composition, which she has titled “Ease the Roads.”

“One of the things [the students] said from the beginning was that they were interested in a piece that when it ends, it doesn’t really feel like it’s ended because this is an ongoing conversation,” says Porter. “I was definitely interested in writing a piece that looks forward into the future…. [as well as] this idea that every generation is working for the next generation to not have to work quite so hard, or in quite the same ways.”

Porter turned in the completed composition at the end of winter term and will continue to help make adjustments as rehearsals go forward. To accommodate a larger audience, the final performance will be livestreamed on YouTube from “The Bowld,” in the Class of 1959 Music Building Addition’s performance space.

>> Watch the premiere of "Ease the Roads" performed by Exeter’s Concert Choir and Chamber Orchestra

Johnson lauds the “genre-expanding nature” of Porter’s work. “It’s hard to pigeonhole exactly where it belongs in terms of style,” he says. “It’s really exciting to get out of the historical canon and be trying to create something new and fresh and interesting.”

Welcoming new voices

The smaller world necessitated by the pandemic has also seen another member of the Music Department join forces with the Theater and Dance Department to ensure the continued vibrancy of musical performance at Exeter. In mid-March, the latter department staged What Comes Next?, the musical that Choral Assistant Intern Jerome Walker co-wrote as part of his senior thesis at Yale University. Walker also served as musical director and pianist for the production.

In his second year working at Exeter, Walker has taken on an increasing number of responsibilities. In addition to working with the Concert Choir and directing the Choral Union, he taught a general music listening course in the winter term, and will teach a course in music theory in the spring. He’s also an adviser for the Gender and Sexuality Alliance and related student affinity groups, including one for queer students of color.

Jerome Walker on keyboard in foreground. Lauren Josef in background.

What Comes Next? is the poignant story of a couple and their daughter, dealing with the sudden death of their son and her brother — and the uncertainty of their future without him — on the anniversary of his untimely death. Walker and Lauren Josef, chair of the Theater and Dance Department, thought the play would be suitable for pandemic times because of its relatively small cast of seven.

They decided to double-cast the show in order to include more students. “But we had so many fantastic people come out in auditions that ... to only cast 14 people in something this term was just not enough,” Walker says. To open the door even wider to student performers, they decided to put together a cabaret show called The Bad Side. “We did all kinds of campy, creepy villain songs from musicals,” Walker says. Rehearsals for the cabaret were “a lot of fun,” he says, and a good balance for the heavy emotional themes of What Comes Next?

Auditions for both productions were held over Zoom, along with a majority of the rehearsals; the first in-person rehearsal took place near the end of February. Actors wore masks, and a small audience watched the four live productions of the musical, along with a livestream of each production on YouTube.

...they’re getting creative ideas about how to broaden their own sense of music.”

Though Walker and his co-author, Noah Parnes, held a staged reading of the play at Yale, this was the first full-scale production of the musical, with costumes, set design, lighting and the other trappings of a production. “One of the main differences for me was that it did not feel like I was the only engine making the thing go,” Walker says. “It was so beautiful to see it brought to life in such a different way.”

Walker feels lucky to have worked in Exeter’s Music Department “at a pretty pivotal time in its history.” Like Johnson, he sees the importance of Schultz’s and Rabb’s roles in centering contemporary music — both electronic and emerging music and jazz — in the program in a way they haven’t been before.

“We talk all the time about how we want any student on campus to be able to come into our building and find a place where they fit in,” Walker says. “But it’s one thing to think that, and it’s another thing to really take a critical look at — OK, what do we teach? Who is full-time faculty? Where do we allocate our time and our resources? That’s something that has been happening at the school generally for the last couple of years, and something that I have felt the Music Department has really taken in stride, which has been great.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

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