Summer research takes students on a musical journey

Qiudi Zhang and Crystal Wu with composer Georg Katzer

Kenan Music Scholars Qiudi Zhang and Crystal Wu had a rare opportunity last summer, thanks to a research grant, to commission a new piece of music for clarinet and piano. Their project took on a special meaning when they actually traveled to Germany to meet with Georg Katzer, the composer.

The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), awarded by the Office for Undergraduate Research, made it all possible.

The project exposed them to various aspects of the music business and creating compositions. Georg Katzer, an avant-garde composer, agreed to commission the piece. Zhang (a senior) and Wu (a junior) learned the business side to music as they formalized the agreement with a contract, which included any legal issues and what they would be able to pay (with money from the SURF grant).

Stefan Litwin, the George Kennedy Distinguished Professor of Music, put them in touch with Katzer.

“He continues to be one of the most interesting composers in Germany today,” Litwin noted.

Katzer’s career spans various styles, including chamber works and electroacoustic music, but his enthusiasm for teaching, particularly with young people, made him a good choice.

When they received the composition, it seemed a little daunting at first.

“I think we were both a little intimidated by how difficult the piece was in terms of individual techniques for each instrument, and then putting it all together was not going to be easy,” said Wu.

It was a collaborative effort. Before going to Berlin, Katzer sent them the piece so they could practice it with the help and guidance of their adviser and professor of music Donald Oehler.

A musical excursion

When they finally arrived in Berlin last July to meet and discuss the piece with Katzer, Zhang said there was only one way to describe the experience:

Fun. Pure fun.

“We were relieved that he turned out to be the most pleasant composer to work with, and he was very sweet,” Zhang said.

Their week in Berlin with Katzer was a learning experience on multiple levels. They gained insight into the interpretations of a composer and how he makes accommodations for the performer and instrument. They also learned and practiced the unfamiliar techniques.

“When we met Katzer, he helped us out by clarifying the difficult spots, and he definitely readjusted some parts so that we could play them better,” said Zhang. “He didn’t care how precise we were with these extended techniques, but rather, he thought of them as a way to convey a certain feeling.”

They also learned that Katzer titled his piece Excursions because he viewed his composition as a ‘hike’ leading them to ‘musical islands.’

As Kenan Music Scholars, Zhang and Wu were already well versed in music, but this gave them the opportunity to enrich their craft. The Kenan Music Scholars Program provides a full, four-year scholarship to Carolina, including support for summer research and other activities.

“As classical musicians, neither of us had delved into the world of electronic music, and we have little experience with extended instrumental techniques,” said Wu. “We knew that we would benefit from his expertise in these areas.”

A lasting experience, a lasting piece

“These are two very, very capable musicians,” Oehler said of Zhang and Wu. “They’re nationally competitive musicians, which means they have a real command of their instruments, a good understanding of musical styles, of good sounds and good approach.”

“All those things are part of the equation that makes this work.”

Excursions premiered on Oct. 14, 2011 in the Person Recital Hall. The duo hopes to play it again this year, although they will continue to improve it.

“It was very satisfying and a unique experience to actually get a chance to collaborate with the composer of a piece,” said Wu.

“Many seasoned musicians out there have never had the opportunity to commission their own piece. We have essentially added a piece to the piano and clarinet repertoire, and that is very exciting.”

[Story by Kristen Chavez ’13]