Alex Shanafelt ’19 acknowledges being “a little nervous” when he and his classmates were asked to compose music for famed New York clarinetist Thomas Piercy.
“Dr. Schelle said this huge clarinet guy is going to play your pieces, and I thought, ‘I don’t have anything for clarinet right now,'” says Shanafelt, an Indianapolis native who’s a music composition major. “But he kept pushing and pushing and I figured I might as well submit something because an opportunity like this doesn’t come around very often.”
Shanafelt’s contemporary classical piece Overhearing will be one of four compositions by Butler University students that Piercy will perform—alongside the composers—on Tuesday, March 19, at 7:30 PM in the Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall. Admission is free and open to the public.
The idea to play students’ pieces came together when Professor of Music and Composer in Residence Michael Schelle and his wife, pianist/composer Miho Sasaki, invited Piercy to perform at Butler. Schelle and Sasaki have written pieces that Piercy has performed as part of his Tokyo to New York concert series, which features new works composed for Western and Japanese classical instruments, and celebrates the connection between the two cities.
Schelle asked Piercy, “What if my kids wrote pieces for clarinet or clarinet and piano and you picked a few to do in the program?”
Piercy liked the idea. Schelle presented the opportunity to his students and four—Shanafelt and graduate students Matt Mason, Seth David, and Justin Hung—submitted compositions. Piercy decided he’d play all four pieces at the concert.
“That’s what I hoped he’d say,” Schelle says. “So four world premieres by four of our students. Then he’ll take them back to New York, he’ll play them in New York, he’ll play them in Japan. So it gives my kids an opportunity to get outside of Butler. That’s huge.”
The Japan connection turned out to be serendipitous for graduate student Mason. He was reading a book called Japanese Death Poems, the last poetry of early Japanese haiku poets, when Schelle requested compositions. Mason wrote a piece called Reflections on Ichimu’s Death Dream that will be played at the concert.
Piercy, he says, “seems like the kind of person who’s really collaborative, and he’s championing new music, which is great. As a composer of new music, we’re battling not only other new composers, but we’re also battling the classical masters. So to have someone come along who’s really gung-ho for just the new music, it gives us the opportunity to get our work out there and show that we can do this, too.”
Mason, a Lincoln, Illinois, native who did his undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan, says he appreciates the opportunity “to write for Piercy, have him say it’s good enough to play, and get to play it with him.”
The March 19 concert also will feature Piercy performing a few pieces on a Japanese wind instrument called the hichiriki—including a new composition by Schelle called Jukai (named for the suicide forest at the base of Mt. Fuji), a new work by Sasaki written for bass clarinet and bayan accordion, and a John Cage composition that will feature Piercy with Schelle, Sasaki, and the four student composers.
“This is definitely a cool opportunity,” Shanafelt agrees. “It’s sort of like dipping your toe into the freelancing world, where you get a commission, you write a piece, it’s performed, and you get more commissions from that. That’ll be cool to have, because most of my performances are from student players and this will be the first time a professional musician will be performing a piece. So it’s a really good experience.”