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Birds, Chinese Poetry Unite in Upcoming Concordia Orchestra Premiere

Dr. Steven Makela writes music on a white board during a class at Concordia College.

A Concordia College alumna, thousands of starlings, a Tang dynasty poet, and a Dutch filmmaker have collaborated in Dr. Steven Makela’s “to face the wind,” set for its world premiere by The Concordia Orchestra during its upcoming tour.

Makela, composer and assistant professor of music theory and composition at Concordia, has been working on the piece for four years, drawing inspiration from many sources. First and foremost, he said, was a series of conversations with Yuzhu Lu, who took music theory with Makela before graduating from Concordia in 2018.

During those talks, she shared what it was like for her, as a young Chinese woman, to live in the Upper Midwest. She also introduced Makela to the poetry of Wang Wei, a famous poet of the Tang dynasty who lived between 699 and 759.

“His work is something that we studied … very young in elementary school,” Lu said.

As a college student, and particularly as an international student living in the U.S., anything that reminded her of home, especially from her own culture, became especially important to Lu. She often read Wang’s poetry, meditating and thinking about it, and sharing it with her professor.

Drawn to the works’ timeless quality, Makela ultimately chose four of Wang’s poems for his work.

“One of the things that struck me about all of the poems was this sense of one being out in nature, and then being, not necessarily in a state of loneliness, but a state of isolation,” Makela said.

He recorded Lu reading the poems aloud, and used her inflection to create melodic ideas, transcribing pitches into notes, words becoming motifs that can be clearly heard in “to face the wind.”

The piece went through a number of changes as he developed it, shifting from a composition for voice and electronics to one for voice and piano. A cello was added and then dropped but, ultimately, the piece became voice with an orchestra.

“And I was contemplating what I wanted to do with the orchestra as an accompanimental instrument for the solo voice,” he recalled.

An unlikely helper arrived in the form of YouTube’s algorithm, which suggested he watch Jan van IJken’s “Flight of the Starlings,” a short version of “The Art of Flying,” on National Geographic’s channel.

The video features a massive flock of starlings demonstrating an unusual behavior demonstrated by no other bird species — murmuration. The birds gather, and with no leader, synchronize their movements to fly together, forming complex shapes and patterns that twist and turn, all the while floating through the sky. When the murmuration is at distance, it could be mistaken for a beach barely within earshot, but close up, the flapping wings become a roar, with a chorus of high-pitched starling voices audible over the din.

The wavelike patterns the starlings painted across the sky resonated with Makela, and so did their method of following the handful of other birds nearest them rather than a specific bird. As such, the composer also hoped to include some elements of randomness and improvisation.

“And so when I saw these murmurations, it dawned on me that I would really like the conductor of the orchestra to do — sort of — an interpretive dance,” he said.

He approached Dr. Kevin Sütterlin, associate professor of instrumental conducting, director of orchestral activities and opera, and the conductor of The Concordia Orchestra.

Dr. Kevin F.E. Sütterlin

“Many passages in the work are not written in any meter, and instead follow predetermined lengths and durations that are based on the projected films of starling murmurations that accompany the work,” Sütterlin said. “During these moments, I get to ‘conduct’ shapes and gestures that relate to the way the starling birds are flying, and the strings are reacting to my gestures in a freely improvised manner.”

Typically, traditional orchestral training doesn’t include improvisation, but Sütterlin had studied it as an undergraduate, practicing deep listening skills, exploring nontraditional sounds, communicating in different ways, and creating unique soundscapes and shapes together.

“I have been wanting to do free improvisation with my orchestra students at Concordia for a while already, had even planned for it during our first semester back from COVID, but ultimately did not do it,” the conductor said. “When Dr. Makela approached me with the idea of wanting to include some free improvisation in this work, it gave me the courage to finally do free improvisation with the orchestra, and it was so much fun to team-teach this with Dr. Makela.”

As it includes so much improvisation, the student musicians in the orchestra are also collaborating to create the piece anew each time it’s performed.

The Concordia Orchestra

“We can play this piece five different times in front of different audiences and in different spaces — every single performance will be absolutely unique and will sound different,” Sütterlin said.

The piece has unique challenges and demands for many of those involved, including its conductor, who must lead an orchestra that includes a leaderless flock of birds, as music does not merely accompany van IJken’s video of the starlings’ flight.

“The birds are actually part of the score,” Makela explained.

“During those times I have one eye on the starling murmuration video, and another eye on a timer that is sitting on my music stand to make sure to continue with the next cue or next musical passage at the exact right time,” Sütterlin said.

Dr. Anne Jennifer Nash

The piece also holds many complexities for its vocal soloist, soprano Dr. Anne Jennifer Nash, associate professor of voice at Concordia. It was her first time singing in Chinese, and the fourth poem includes significant improvisation.

“She never knows what they’re going to be playing, from one performance to the next. She has an idea because they’ve been given limited pitch sets to work with,” Makela said, describing Nash’s musical instructions as a “contour.”

Sütterlin particularly appreciated the way his students had the opportunity to work directly with a composer, particularly one like Makela, who continued to write, change, and iterate the work based on what he heard in rehearsals. He even regarded the performers as collaborators in their own right, Sütterlin noted.

“It really is a collaboration of about 60 to 65 people, all of whom have an important role to play,” Makela said. “So for me, it's been a wonderful experience on a lot of levels. I love collaborating with people. And there were so many collaborations involved in this, and I'm very grateful for all of them.”

The Concordia Orchestra will debut “to face the wind” during its 2023 tour.

  • 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29, Historic Holmes Theatre, Detroit Lakes, Minn.
  • 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 31, Bismarck High School Auditorium, Bismarck, N.D.
  • 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, Williston High School PAC, Williston, N.D.
  • 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, Magic City Campus, Minot High School Theater, Minot, N.D.
  • 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5, Memorial Auditorium, Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn.