Partners in Composition
By Terry Godbey
This fall’s world premiere of Jaron Lanier’s “Symphony for Amelia” at the Knowles Memorial Chapel was the culmination of a yearlong collaboration among the noted computer scientist, a music professor, and one lucky Rollins music major.
When jazz guitar performance major Ted Henderson ’11 chose Rollins, he expected an education that would open his eyes to the possibilities of music, and maybe even open a few doors. But he didn’t expect a chance to work side by side with noted composer and computer scientist Jaron Lanier.
“It was a wonderful opportunity,” Henderson said of the months he spent transforming Lanier’s digital recording and rough score of his new “Symphony for Amelia” into nearly 100 pages of musical directions for choir and orchestra. The symphony premiered this fall in Knowles Memorial Chapel, performed by the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park.
John M. Tiedtke Professor of Music John Sinclair, who heads Rollins’ music department and serves as artistic director and conductor of the Bach Choir and Orchestra, chose Henderson, 21, for the task of orchestrating the composition because “he’s brilliant himself, a gifted student, with a fabulous ear. And indeed, Ted has done magnificently.”
Sinclair met Lanier in 2007 when the composer participated, along with other thought leaders including Maya Angelou, Francis Fukuyama, and Salman Rushdie in the Rollins College Colloquy, a conversation on liberal education, social responsibility, and globalization. Sinclair was captivated by Lanier’s talent as a composer as well as his “freakish brilliance”—he is the computer scientist who coined the term “virtual reality” and was named a distinguished thinker on Time’s 2010 list of the world’s 100 most influential people. “I was fascinated by the idea of how someone who not only had his mental capacity but his musical interests would approach composition,” Sinclair said.
So Sinclair enlisted the sponsorship of the Bach Festival and Rollins’ Winter Park Institute, which brings leading scholars and artists to the campus, and Lanier was commissioned to produce an orchestral and choral work.
Lanier’s busy schedule required him to produce his symphony digitally and let someone else edit it and transfer it to paper. “I was afraid I might not be able to do every aspect of the traditional job, so I suggested we find a student who’d want to do that,” Lanier said. Henderson, who intends to write musical scores for films someday, was excited and nervous about being that student.
Henderson is working on his honors thesis and hopes to attend grad school at New York University, the University of Southern California, or the University of California, Los Angeles. “I’m kind of shooting for the stars, but I’d like to be in California or New York. For the film score world, it’s kind of where you have to be,” said Henderson, who is scheduled to graduate from Rollins in May.
With his film score aspirations, he felt the task was right up his alley. “In the line of work I want to go into, composers don’t actually orchestrate and write onto paper their own work,” he explained. “Nowadays, with the onset of computer programs that you can use to write music, it’s just much easier to input your composition in the computer program and then have orchestrators work on it on paper. That’s how it’s done much of the time.” He began the work in February, as soon as Lanier had finished composing.
Lanier gave Henderson a computer form of recording in which he had written the music “on a synthesizer keyboard that inputs the notes into a program that then spits out a sound back at you for whatever notes you’re playing,” Henderson explained. “So it’s not a real acoustic instrument you’re using, it’s just your computer, but it is a recording that you can then go back and listen to.”
And listen Henderson did, over and over. “I did have a lot of work on my hands,” he said. He credits the “great team of people here to guide me,” which included Sinclair and Dan Crozier, an associate professor and composer whose work “Fairy Tale” was performed at the concert along with “Symphony for Amelia” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
“Ted has done an absolutely superb job,” Crozier said. “Preparation for a premiere is a very, very special time, and whenever Ted would bring some new bits of Jaron’s score for us to peruse and to hear, the composition class was very excited.”
Henderson also sought advice from Lanier. “It was a really interactive process,” he said. In April, Lanier visited Rollins for the symphony’s first read-through with some members of the orchestra and choir. After that rehearsal, the music needed many corrections. “The choir parts were an octave too high,” for instance, Henderson said. Hearing human voices is “always the best way to tell if something you’ve written is legitimately singable.”
Then, in mid-summer, Henderson spent four days finishing the work with Lanier at his Berkeley home on the side of a mountain overlooking San Francisco Bay. “That was definitely the most exciting part of the experience,” he said.
Henderson learned much about composing. “When you’re editing a 100-page score for months, you get so much practice time at your craft,” he said, “and learning what kind of markings can produce a certain sound from a player, learning that relationship between the paper and the player.”
He didn’t take liberties, though. “I tried to, as accurately as possible, put onto paper what Jaron had put into that computer file. My job was to pretend to be Jaron as much as I could, and that is the job of any good orchestrator.”
“Ted was great,” Lanier said. “He worked with me to get this thing together and sort it out. He had a big job. I think he might have gotten a little bit more work than he was bargaining for when he agreed to do it initially,” he said with a chuckle.
The Winter Park Institute, too, is pleased with the collaboration. Launched in 2008 by Rollins President Lewis Duncan, the Institute hosts distinguished scholars and artists not simply to give a lecture or performance, but to engage and share time and ideas with faculty, students, and the Central Florida community. Gail Sinclair, the Institute’s executive director, said the collaboration “represents precisely what we hope will happen—the synergy between scholars, faculty, students, and the community.” Lanier called the Institute “a great luxury of a really focused, smaller campus, which can create that contact between students and all sorts of people who come in.”
Perhaps no one has experienced the synergy in quite the same way as Henry Maldonado—from behind his camera. The president of Maitland’s Enzian Theater and the Florida Film Festival is producing a documentary film about the symphony’s evolution. “I’m confident we’re going to end up with a very interesting film,” he said.
Before “Symphony for Amelia,” Lanier had never written a musical work for an orchestra and choir together, and he found the vocal parts challenging. “I’m used to writing for orchestra, and I love instruments. Instruments have always made sense to me. I think of them as almost being like musical masks—in other words, you wear a clarinet and then you’re pretending to be a clarinet for a while. I’ve always had this feeling about instruments, that they’re almost like characters, and they always made sense to me in a very intuitive way. I don’t have that same sort of intuitive feeling about the voice.”
The text for the choral work is based on a poem by Amelia Lanier, who was Shakespeare’s contemporary and may be the composer’s distant cousin. Jaron Lanier is a writer, too. Earlier this year, Knopf published his book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, a provocative exploration of the internet’s problems and potential. He is also a visual artist, pianist, and a collector of obscure musical instruments, of which he plays hundreds.
Encyclopedia Britannica includes Lanier in its list of history’s 300 or so greatest inventors. He founded VPL Research, the first company to sell virtual reality products, and while he was there, the company pioneered the first use of virtual reality applications in surgical simulations.
Henderson was impressed by Lanier. “He’s pretty eccentric and wildly intelligent. It was really, really flattering and honoring to be treated the way I was by Jaron,” he said. “He was really humble and kind to me the whole way through, and as intimidating as he can be just because of who he is and how intelligent he is, he really made me feel quite welcome throughout the experience.”
Lanier said his composition “gets back to what a symphony is supposed to be. It is just such a cool, amazing thing, and the sound just surrounds you in waves. It’s like being in this magic world with all these different shades and different crevices and little details.”
And how grand that Henderson was invited into that magic world, cameras rolling, before he’s even stepped foot in Hollywood.