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It’s good to believe that creative thought matters—and better still to prove it, which is what Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour did this year as Skidmore’s McCormack Visiting Artist-Scholar. One of the most sought-after composers of his generation, he is admired for what the Baltimore Sun calls his “richly orchestrated, rhythmically charged works popular with performers and audiences.”
Sandwiching his campus visits into a schedule stuffed with nationwide performances, Danielpour took part in seven public events on campus, giving essentially a yearlong course in the practice of creativity, culminating in a March performance of scenes from his 2005 opera Margaret Garner. The opera’s libretto, by author Toni Morrison, tells another version of the story of the historical character at the center of her novel Beloved: an escaped American slave who murdered her baby to save her from a life of slavery.
Danielpour also visited twenty classes, from theater and music to business, government, classics, and even physics (think sound waves and frequencies.) He talked about his music in terms of creative process, language, culture and history, ethical tension, and dramatic structure. “The slaves’ escape is the high point of Margaret Garner so it comes at the ‘golden mean,’ about two-thirds of the way in,” he told his audience.
A strikingly straight talker, he also said that artists steal, pulling ideas and elements from material they like. (In his case, that has meant grand larceny from gospel, Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Stravinsky, West Side Story, and more.) Then they assimilate what they borrow and learn so deeply that it becomes “part of our cellular structure.”
Describing a process equally familiar to scientists and musicians,he explained, “You operate on gut feeling and intuition, but the mind has to sort it into shape. You draw from what’s all around you, right under your nose, but you make it new.”
“He’s like an artistic motivational speaker,” marvels Adam Lerman ’07. “Really smart and able to speak as both an academic and an artist.”
At one public forum, Danielpour took to the piano to retrace the genesis of a particular bit of music. Pounding out a segment of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, he recalled wondering, “What if I were to do something like this, but a little differently?” He played the same passage again but much more slowly, creating a new sound that evolved into a Margaret Garner theme. “That was a classical steal,” he admits. “It was conscious in some ways, but it’s not kleptomania, because when I did this I wasn’t even thinking of Eroica—I had processed it already.”
For the staged Margaret Garner excerpts, a packed Bernhard Theater rang with powerful, larger-than-life performances from four guest artists. Janet Casey, an English and American-studies professor, says her English students (many of whom had never been to an opera) “loved the big story, the big voices—and wished there had been even more singing.”
Another top moment for a group
of faculty and student actors, dancers, and musicians was a master class in which Danielpour screened a video of a scene from a previous Garner production and said bluntly, “I hated this staging. What would you do to improve it?” Right away ideas began flying thick and fast. Then the class broadened into a wider, deeper discussion of art and artists. His advice on how to become an artist? Declare yourself one. “When you fail, fail big—and learn from it.” And no matter what, get plenty of sleep.
“He spoke to us like one artist to another,” says Julie Congress ’08, “and he was so excited to share these things with us.” “That was pretty great,” agrees Falko Schilling ’07. “It recharged my artistic batteries.” —BAM