Student's composition to debut at WMSO concert

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The William & Mary Symphony Orchestra (WMSO) gathers for rehearsal in a classroom of Ewell Hall. Silence -- rare when so many musicians are gathered in one place at one time -- is all one hears for a split second. Until, with a wave of the conductor baton, the symphony sounds one note, which soon evolves into a fast-paced, almost hectic rhythmical chorus then dies down again to near silence.

This is “Inertia,” an original musical composition created by Ryan Laney ’11, which will premier with a full symphony orchestra during WMSO’s Fall Concert Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. in Phi Beta Kappa Hall. As the winner of last year’s orchestral commission competition through the music department, Laney was asked to create an original musical score between three and eight minutes.

“It’s called ‘Inertia’ because for me, the piece kind of represents the struggle that we go through as students and as people every day of our lives,” Laney, a double major in physics and music, said “I was thinking a lot about what we go through as students every day, and how some days, you just want to wake up and be the best I can be and some days, you just wake up and you’re like ‘you know, I’m just going to sit in my couch and watch TV.’”

From the very beginning, it is almost evident that “Inertia” is a quite a bit different than the melodic, smooth classical songs that oftentimes are associated with music appropriate for a symphony orchestra.

“So what this piece kind of does is it really rockets forward, then gets kind of crazy and then winds itself down into almost silence, basically static,” Laney said. “The piece is really about winding down and forcing itself into this kind of lazy, static texture.”

Laney mentioned that one of the biggest challenges as a composer was getting the orchestra, many of whom have become so used to playing classical music, to adjust to this more contemporary style and genre of music.

“You give a piece to classical violinists, and they’re going to look at a melody and play it very beautifully and lyrically. That’s not what this piece is about at all; this piece is about what’s on the page and approaching it like a rock musician,” Laney said. “It’s getting performers out of that feeling of playing nice, pretty and classical music into something more digital, robotic and really kind of driving music that’s hard.”

He also mentioned many personal challenges throughout the process. The least of which was a constant thought of how the orchestra and the audience would perceive his work.

“The biggest thing that was going through my head was, how was I going to live up to ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and Appalachian spring, two of the best pieces of music in the last 100 years in the entire orchestral literature,” he said, referring to the other two works being performed during WMSO’s Fall Concert. “And here I am, a senior in college on the same program.”

But to Laney, the whole act of creating a composition itself seems to have given him a greater insight into the whole process of composing, rising above the challenges and creating a new piece of work.

“Usually, as a composer, you write a piece, give it to your performers, and maybe sit in on the last two rehearsals,” Laney said. “Having worked on the piece for several months and having come to rehearsal every day, being there the whole time has opened my eyes as to how the whole process works from conception to execution.”

For director and conductor of WMSO Akiko Fujimoto, having the opportunity to debut a new piece of work has been particularly exciting and also a great experience for her as an instructor.

“Working with any living composer, student or not, is a fantastic experience because of the opportunity to ask questions as you learn the piece,” Fujimoto said. “Working on a world premier is even better because you get to be part of its ’birth’ in ways that you don’t get to if it’s a second performance or later.”

Fujimoto admits that at the beginning, the orchestra did struggle a bit as most of the rhythm of the music was from outside genres. However, in her eyes, she is proud of the way other orchestra members devoted as much seriousness to this piece as they had other, older works.

“I remember the second rehearsal, at the end, I heard the piece literally come off the page. It was rough, and we were still struggling with many things about it, but its effectiveness started to make itself apparent,” Fujimoto said. “Afterwards, people were whistling and singing the main theme of the piece while packing and leaving. I’m pretty sure that put a big smile on Ryan’s face and for me, it was one of those ‘I’m glad I’m in music’ moments that comes only once every few years.”

WMSO’s Fall Concert is just around the corner, and until then, it’s rehearsal after rehearsal for Laney. But what does he plan to do afterwards?

“Well, I guess I’ll sleep first of all,” Laney joked. “If people are excited about doing a performance or music, I’ll give it to them. Whatever comes my way.”