Essay before a walk

Thomas Feng

Where does music happen? A concert hall, a practice room, between two headphones, through laptop or car speakers – rarefied spaces sealed off from the outside world, so as to focus on the music alone, taking its own time. As a musician (and especially as a composer) I was taught mostly that music unfolds in time. And yet, we all know how music can transform – or is transformed by – a moment in the elevator, or the subway, or by the beach. And the outdoor Hollywood Bowl is certainly a different place than Disney Hall for Yo-Yo Ma to play unaccompanied Bach. 

The vision of the Cornell ReSounds project involves collaboration between musicians and artists of other disciplines, and the creation of site-specific works: music as part of an integrated creative community that could only happen here. The inaugural festival’s “musical pilgrimage” is a rich illustration of exactly this, featuring poetry, theater, dance, and installation art amidst musical performances, in familiar spaces along our beloved campus.

We begin in the lobbies of the Johnson Museum of Art, rooms of welcoming. Installations by Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri and Pe Lang, like fountains, offer a gentle hum of life. The first concert (performed by MikeDrop Duo and Lucy Fitz Gibbon), featuring no instruments aside from the human body, explores such everyday human performances as greeting a friend, falling asleep, interrupting conversations, or singing by (or to) oneself – just as one might see while people-watching in a museum lobby.

At the northwest corner of Lincoln Hall, poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon and bassist Desmond Bratton perform an accompanied recitation of Fugue: The Sight, an original poem centered around a theme of premonition. Outside, by a well-traveled thoroughfare, a recitation can take the shape of a public declamation, a burning prophecy from Cassandra for all who stop to listen.

The cavernous Crit Dome of Milstein Hall will host two concerts of piano music (one on each day of the festival). Pianos themselves have chambers for sound to reverberate, conjuring aural images of space – a microcosm of the hall through which the sound will ring. The duo HearNowHear presents two intensely ruminative works for prepared pianos. The following day, pianists Thomas Reeves, Richard Valitutto, and myself play a set of three pieces inspired by architecture and nature. 

In the Groos Family Auditorium of Klarman Hall, under the gaze of graceful white stone statues, Rebecca Anderson performs three virtuosic violin works, alongside dancers Amy Saunder and Antuan Byers, choreographed by Caili Quan – human figures, in stillness and in motion, cast in a grand tableau vivant

The Jones/Butterfield Duo (banjo/mandolin and bass) perform under the stained glass and vaulted ceilings of Sage Chapel, a warmly lit place for quietude and contemplation. Spacious yet intimate, gentle music here feels like an embrace. 

At sunset, whalesong coupled with Cornell’s famous chimes (in a composition by Annie Lewandowski) sings out across Libe Slope – through the open air as through the open ocean, traversing great distance.

The evening concludes with a “hootenanny” in the back garden of the A.D. White House, featuring a different jazz trio (Electrolyte and Fifth Parallel) each night. Friendly music, in a private yet open setting, on a late summer evening: our “pilgrimage” brings us finally to a feeling of a backyard soirée, perhaps a feeling of “home”.


Catch Thomas Feng on Sep. 5, where he will perform on Concert 3 .