This Sunday, May 5, Concord Academy’s Chamber Music Concert will feature the world premiere of Paisajes del Desierto by 2024 composer-in-residence Láura Macias. The deserts of the Southwest inspired her to write this three-movement piece for the Chameleon Chamber Players, who will conjure the heat and wild allure of that distant landscape.

The composer, who is Mexican but grew up in El Paso, Texas, had the commission for CA’s chamber musicians on her mind while she visited family near Tucson, Ariz., earlier this year. The Sonoran Desert, which stretches 100,000 square miles across Mexico and the United States, is hot and vibrant, dotted with majestic saguaros, and it’s home to venomous scorpions and rattlesnakes. Macias had not been there since she was a teenager herself. 

“We hiked in the desert, and I was inspired by seeing how beautiful and dangerous it was,” she says. “I couldn’t just walk. I had to be more aware of my surroundings.” It was there, she says, listening for the rustles of animals, that she had the idea to write for the instruments in unconventional ways—to imitate the “creepy-crawly movements” on the desert floor. 

With nine student musicians, the Chameleon Chamber Players offered Macias a chance to compose for unusual instrumentation, including winds, strings, and piano four hands. Having previously written for many of these instruments separately but not all of them together, she embraced the learning experience and ended up composing three short, related pieces, the first for winds and piano, the second for strings and piano, and the third for the entire ensemble.

“The students were challenged to explore new sounds, innovative techniques, changing meters, and unexpected harmonies,” says Andra Dix, director of chamber music and orchestra and coordinator of the individual music instruction (IMI) program at CA. “Breathy sounds evoke the wind, harmonics imitate animal noises, and key clicks represent the scurrying of scorpions. Láura adeptly tailored the piece for our unique instrumentation. It was both challenging and rewarding to put together, and we had a lot of fun with it!”

One of the unfamiliar ways students learned to play their instruments included a flutter-tonguing technique to create a burring sound on the flute. Writing for two pianists on one grand piano, Macias says she wondered, “What if the other pianist helps out with extended techniques?” So one pianist plays on the keyboard while the other holds down strings beneath the open cover. Macias said she had had fun experimenting with techniques on her piano at home with her 8-year-old son, creating a distinctive plucking sound using his ukulele pick.

Over the spring semester, the students and Dix rehearsed with Macias to learn and further develop her composition. “They have a lot of good ideas,” Macias says. “I usually like to work with the performers. I write stylistically for each instrument, and I care how they feel about playing that way—if they have fun, it’s better.”

Finally, they worked on refining their performance and synchronizing with a backdrop of desert images and artwork: Gnarled and intertwining, saguaros rise from the reddish earth of the desert, standing in sculptural relief against its distant hills. High strings sound, ethereal, like the creeping dawn, followed by a few slow, close notes on piano. Rhythmic plucking builds tension—creatures are stirring, their movements discordant at first, now advancing and retreating together. The oboe enters, sinuous: a snake uncoiling. The music is airy, light, then menacing, relentless, before it bursts into dance.

For Macias, the collaboration was a chance to exercise her creativity, celebrate her cultural heritage by referencing popular dance rhythms from northern Mexico, and reexamine the environment of her youth. Typically writing for adult performers and teaching younger students, ages 7 to 12, at ZUMIX, a music nonprofit based in East Boston, Macias was also excited to work with teenagers at CA. She learned about the opportunity through a colleague, Stephanie Lubkowski, who was CA’s first composer-in-residence two years ago and later taught in the IMI program. Last year, Curtis Hughes ’92, P’18 composed for student musicians. 

The uncommon opportunity for these collaborations with composers was made possible by the generosity of the CA community. A bequest from Elizabeth Smith Bagby ’40 helps to support the music program and visiting faculty. 

“It has been a truly special and rewarding experience for all of us to work with Láura,” Dix says. “Rarely does a musician have the opportunity to perform a piece composed specifically for them. Playing newly composed music is a transformative experience.” 

Hear the Music

It’s a music-filled weekend! The Spring Concert will take place on May 3, 2024, at 8:00 p.m. in the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel. Don’t miss the world premiere of Paisajes del Desierto during the Chamber Music Concert on May 5, 2024, at 3:00 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center.

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