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A composition across continents

  • Conducting the composition
    Conducting the composition
    Evan Cunningham '16 leads performers in a recital of the composition he prepared. Once united with the dance performance "Mirror, Mirror" prepared by Shannon Callahan '16, the complete production will be performed at the On The Rocks Scottish Student Arts Festival at St Andrews in April.
    Photo courtesy Evan Cunningham

An idea originating between two William & Mary students in Monroe Hall over a year ago will come to fruition later this spring on the craggy coastline of St Andrews, Scotland.

Evan Cunningham ’16, a music and philosophy major, and Shannon Callahan ’16, a participant in the St Andrews William & Mary Joint Degree Programme, have collaborated on a music and dance composition that will be performed during the annual On The Rocks Scottish Student Arts Festival in St Andrews April 4-13.

A narrative in song and dance

The pair, both Monroe Scholars, bonded during their time as freshmen in Monroe Hall. They stayed in touch after Callahan left last fall to begin her first year at St. Andrews, and the distance did not keep her from approaching Cunningham with her idea.

Shannon Callahan '16“She was choreographing a piece for two dancers, and she asked me if I would be willing to compose something for it. Originally, we thought that I’d compose about four minutes of music, maybe mixed in with some other songs,” Cunningham said, but as the project evolved, the two saw the project had to potential to become so much more.

“We decided I would compose the whole soundscape in three movements. It’s arranged for an ensemble of string and wind players in combination with stereo electronics,” Cunningham said, noting the whole work had been expanded to around 15 minutes.

Cunningham’s music, however, is incomplete without Callahan’s story and choreography. Together, they combine to create a unique production of performance art.

“The dance and the music describe the experience of a character who has undergone some trauma, some heartbreak,” Cunningham explained. “It explores this process of a girl disassociating from her pain. The pain becomes personified in another dancer.”

But there’s a catch. According to Cunningham, in excising her pain, the main character also loses the other emotions that are tied up in her suffering. The intertwined nature of all emotions is an essential theme of the composition, through which the work seeks to probe the cost of emotional pain.

A ‘serendipitous’ team

After working on the composition for some time, Cunningham brought the work to the attention of Sophia Serghi, his instructor and professor of theory and composition in William & Mary’s department of music, who immediately took an interest in the project.

“She has provided invaluable feedback which has helped me progress with my composition,” Cunningham said. “This is a head-first dive into a totally new world of scoring for dance and scoring for a larger ensemble of instruments, and Professor Serghi has been incredible in helping me move forward.”

In addition to composing music, Cunningham is a jazz percussionist as well as a member of DoubleTake, a coed a cappella group on campus.

“My goal while I’m in college is to explore as many facets of music as I can, whether it’s performance or composition, audio engineering or production, because I love it all. I’d love to make music for a living in some capacity,” he said.

Cunningham will soon be able to add yet another facet – that of “international composer” – to his list of experiences when the composition is performed during the On The Rocks festival in Scotland.

On The Rocks is an entirely student-run arts festival featuring art, photography, film, theatre, dance, fashion, music and comedy. Relatively new by Scottish festival standards, On The Rocks has grown since its inception in 2009 to become the largest student-run arts festival in the country.

When the composition is performed during On The Rocks, it will be a shining example of the international collaboration made possible by the St Andrews William & Mary Joint Degree Programme. According to Cunningham, the music composition has occurred entirely on William & Mary’s campus, but the dancers who will perform during the festival are St Andrews students befriended by Callahan during her first year at Scotland’s oldest university.

Together, the dancers from St Andrews and the music from William & Mary will bring to life the story first conceived by Callahan as she made the transition from Williamsburg brick to the grey stone of St Andrews.

“It’s been made possible by the fact that Shannon was able to study at both schools,” Cunningham said. “The St Andrews Programme has been the backdrop on which this project has developed.”

Cunningham attributes the success of this project to William & Mary’s globalized presence, which brought together all the different pieces making it possible.

“It’s amazing how it’s all fallen together. The whole process has been serendipitous: Shannon reaches out to me, we start working together, I start talking to Professor Serghi, and this project comes to life,” Cunningham said.