How do you write music? It’s easy, says Alias composer

quartetClassical music can seem pretty overwhelming to people who’ve never been exposed to it before. Chris Farrell, a composer and violist with the Alias Chamber Ensemble, understands the discomfort.

“I was talking with a friend last summer who didn’t know anything about classical music,” says Farrell. “She wanted to know how you understand the meaning of a piece of music if there are no words to tell you what it’s about.”

farrellFarrell, who serves as Alias’ director of education outreach, spent several months pondering his friend’s good question. Over the course of the next six weeks, he’ll attempt to answer it in a series of public performances.

To help audiences understand how composers write music, Farrell has composed a kind of prefabricated string quartet. The piece consists of an introduction followed by a series of short melodic segments. These sections can be played in almost any order, like an iPod shuffle. The audience will choose the various arrangements. “It will be a fun performance that will underscore the kinds of decisions that composers make,” Farrell says.

In the end, Farrell hopes to show that composing music is actually a lot like writing a story. The melodies in a classical piece are like the different characters in a story. The arrangement and development of these melodies (what composers technically refer to as “form”) are like the plot. Farrell’s choose-your-own-quartet program is designed to turn average listeners into confident musical storytellers.

Alias musicians will perform a couple of other works during the outreach concerts. The first will be a Mozart rondo. “That piece has sections that repeat, so it will give the audience some ideas about how to arrange a quartet,” says Farrell. Another is a quartet by contemporary American composer John Zorn. “Zorn’s piece is the opposite of Mozart, since it’s more about texture and rhythm than melody,” Farrell says.

Alias will present five education concerts:

Friday, March 8 (10:30 a.m.) Park Center South

Friday, April 3 (11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.)  Park Avenue Enhanced Option School

Friday, April 5 (2:15 p.m.) Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School

Saturday, April 6 (2 p.m.) Nashville Public Library (Goodlettesville Branch)

Tuesday, April 9 (9 a.m. and 10 a.m.) Virtual School at Vanderbilt

Performances at public schools are for students only. The Goodlettesville Library concert is open to everyone. For more information about Alias’ outreach concerts, click here.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.