The Bryn Mawr/Haverford Flute Choir will perform Queen, Descend! on Friday, December 8th at Bryn Mawr College. The new composition by Swarthmore professor and alumnus Tom Whitman was commissioned last fall and portrays four Greek female deities: Athena, Styx, Artemis, and Hera, each represented by a movement. The title of the piece comes from a chant, Anassa Kata, traditionally performed by students and alumnae of Bryn Mawr.
Professor Whitman is the co-director of Gamelan Semara Santi at Swarthmore, as well as a composer and performer. He was originally trained in the classical tradition, but while doing graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Whitman decided he wanted to look for something different. With a Luce Scholarship, he went to Indonesia to study Gamelan (a traditional Indonesian percussion ensemble) and traditional Indonesian culture for a year.
Professor Whitman says he still feels like an advanced beginner. “It’s a tradition that, if you weren’t born and raised in the culture, it is very hard to obtain some kind of real mastery.” But, he adds, he has a lot of fun teaching it.
Though he doesn’t think someone listening to Queen, Descend! would hear Gamelan in it, Professor Whitman does see a kind of cultural influence that the tradition of Gamelan had on the piece, and on Professor Whitman’s composing in general. The idea of writing a piece of music for a specific group of musicians, one that speaks directly to the interests, strengths, and ideas of the musicians themselves, is similar to the work of composers in Bali. The process of composing is collaborative, and he hopes that the result speaks directly to the musicians and community.
“What really excites me is writing for particular musicians and figuring out what they like, what their strengths are, and how I can help them sound [good]. I’m not the kind of composer who goes off in a corner and imagines a string quartet.”
When the instructor of the (student-run) Flute Choir, Becki Simon, asked Professor Whitman if he was interested in writing a piece for them, he took the time to go hear their concert, meet and interview the students, and get to know the ensemble on a deeper level. “That is pretty unique in a composer,” Simon remarked. She also teaches flute at Swarthmore and coaches a flute quartet through the Fetter Chamber Music Program. Whitman had never written for a flute choir before but was excited for the challenge. The result, according to Simon, “is something that really represents the group.”
The inspiration to write about ancient Greek deities came from a student artist whose art centered on Hindu deities as well as the fact that the choir was made up entirely of women. “As a man, I had been invited into this female space. I just felt kind of honored to be asked to write a piece for them.”
He decided to write a piece about the Greek female deities as a counter to Gustav Holst’s The Planets, a piece centering on Roman male gods that was previously performed by the flute choir.
“When I get an idea I write it down and I let it percolate for a while,” he says, reminding us that composition is personal, collaborative, and contemplative. For Professor Whitman, the process of fleshing out and refining ideas is much more interesting than the initial moment of inspiration. While composing is for him a question of problem solving, “ideas,” he says, “just come.”
The performance of Queen, Descend! will be held on December 8. More details can be found in the Bryn Mawr arts calendar in the months to come.