Three music students and a professor at Colorado College share their Bernstein-inspired creations and what studying and teaching Bernstein means to them.
Ryan Raul Bañagale, Colorado College’s Crown Family Professor for Innovation in the Arts, tasked the music students in his seminar on Leonard Bernstein with a project: create a public exhibit for the college’s Bernstein at 100 music symposium.
The results were mind-bendingly creative, with students building everything from immersive sound installations to videos exploring Bernstein’s iconic Young People’s Concerts.
We asked Bañagale’s students what music, Bernstein, and working on this project meant to them.
Sketching Bernstein: A Stop-Motion Meditation on Creativity
Co-creators Rishi Ling and Aaron Alcouloumre produced a stop-motion animation meditation on Bernstein’s self-expressed conceptions of creativity.
Alcouloumre, who also grew up in a reform Jewish community, says he found many commonalities with Bernstein:
I see music as expression, communication, and honesty. It gives me the ability to convey feelings and ideas words never could.
As if words can get me to black and white film, music would be IMAX 3D. Music has brought me around the world, a bridge to conversations and close friendships with people I otherwise never would have spoken with.
The impact of studying Bernstein and his legacy proved much greater than I had expected. I too grew up heavily involved in a reform Jewish community and culture and without a doubt it has had a significant impact on my music and personality. Reading about his life, watching videos of him conduct and teach, as well as listening and performing his moving music was actually very comforting.
I found many parallels in the ways in which he looks at music and the world, also in his refreshing passion for his work.
I was left with a reassuring notion that I am pursuing my true calling in life.
Ling, a composer, says he is “drawn” to Bernstein’s intuitive “approach” to composition:
Music means so much to me! It is [a] way of expressing one’s inner thoughts and experiences in a potentially very beautiful way. Whether you’re tonally-inclined or not, music is such a fascinating form of communication shared between all cultures in our world.
Bernstein created such moving music and so will newer generations of composers in all genres. Music will continue to be a vehicle for expression so long as the human race exists.
Interacting with Bernstein’s life and music impacted and continues to impact my approach to composition. I was very drawn to his approach to writing music, explicated in his journals.
Like Bernstein, I try more and more to compose intuitively and pull from my subconscious absorption [of] different musical elements.
Ling and Alcouloumre describe their video as a reflection of Bernstein’s creative process. “Our video, titled Creativity through the Lens of Bernstein,” says Ling, “offers a short, interdisciplinary interpretation of the maestro’s self-described creative process through our own creative process and lens.”
[We created] the stop motion film to shed light [on] the way Bernstein creates. The moments of flow where melody comes to him from seemingly unexplained places put importance on this organic creation of music.
We were trying to communicate that the trance-like states are critical to creation, and I believe that it is commonly misunderstood that “great works” are planned and written with strong intention and thought behind them.
I see Bernstein’s creative process as first being incredibly well versed and studied, and then taking his brain to a place where are the knowledge works harmoniously with his creativity, so although it is all built out of context of great practice, it still comes from a place even he cannot fully understand.
Performing Bernstein: A Meta Young People’s Concert
Created by Stirling Rutty and Laura Cutlip, the “Meta Young People’s Concert” video examines Bernstein’s long and prolific educational career in the style of one of his television broadcasts.
Rutty, who plays Leonard Bernstein in the video, says music has been a constant in his life:
Although I take an interest in many subjects, music is the only passion in my life that has remained constant since early childhood.
I greatly enjoy studying (and occasionally impersonating) Leonard Bernstein because his lifelong passion for music shines through so clearly in the richness and diversity of his musical career.
I am particularly fascinated by the huge emphasis Bernstein placed on his contributions to music education, and on music education in general.
Our “Meta Young People’s Concert” pays homage to Bernstein’s one-of-a-kind educational legacy.
Dr. Bañagale describes how he approached the class, and how the students flourished:
The thirteen undergraduate members of my seminar are all music majors or minors here at Colorado College.
None of them had studied the music of Leonard Bernstein prior to our course, though many were familiar with some of his songs. After an overview and introduction of his early life and career, I turned the creation of the remainder of the syllabus over to them. They established a topics-based approach, rather than a chronological one, researching existing literature and establishing new directions for inquiry. Elements from these explorations emerged through this exhibit.
Some undertook an analysis of musical elements in the song “Maria,” while others created a sound installation exploring musical “Bernstein-ism” such as intervals and scales: if a visitor played a tritone, the speakers might playback an excerpt from Serenade. Two groups of students produced videos.
There was also a memory wall where visitors could leave recollections, reflections, and remembrances. Jamie Bernstein left a post-it that said, “My dad would have LOVED all this!”