Ryan Gross’ ‘15 “Voltage” collaboration with the percussion ensemble an electrifying success

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The Center for the Arts | Photo by Amanda Clark '22

An uplift of sweet, radiant marimba is met with the resonant ringing of the vibraphone, creating a sound similar in timbre to a carol. Suddenly, a wave of drums and cymbals enhances the song’s identity, giving it a more epic quality, as an array of eight percussive sounds come together with electrifying harmony.

It is no secret that making music has been a struggle for campus groups since the spring 2020 semester. The membership of these organizations finds itself divided between on-campus and remote learners, making it difficult to pick up on nuances that come with making music in the traditional way. However, James Thoma, director of the percussion ensemble, took on an interesting challenge even in the face of these unprecedented odds.

Under Thoma’s direction, the ensemble was able to produce a pre-recorded and fully mixed recording of “Voltage,” a piece composed by alumnus Ryan Gross ‘15. The recording of “Voltage” featured the talents of Andrew Leahy ‘21 and Jodie Goldberg ‘23 on the marimba, Reema Norford ‘23 on the doumbek, Dylan DeMagistris ‘24 on the vibraphone and chimes and Meredith Holod ‘24 on the snare drum, suspended cymbal and bass drum.

In the execution of a project of this caliber, Thoma was meticulous in his planning and preparation, designing a system where students would have to be both collaborative and economical with their recordings.

“I set up a template and created a click track, a metronome track of the piece,” explains Thoma. “Next, I sent it to the first musician. They recorded their music to the app playing with the click track. That student then forwarded the file with the click track and their part to the next student. That student would hear the click and the first student’s part and record their part. We continued in that fashion. The final player recorded their track over the click track, so there would be no click on the final product. Finally, the file returned to me to adjust the balance between the instruments and add reverb, making it sound more like a concert hall.”

Thoma explained that the group had been “working through the kinks all year,” and that issues with the popular “Acapella” mobile app had held the group’s progress back at first, but eventually, it “got easier as we started to understand the program.”

The recording of “Voltage” had been a work in progress since the fall 2020 semester, as Thoma explained that almost all of the recordings had been successfully created prior to December, when the semester officially came to a close. The percussion ensemble was fortunate enough to have had Zoom correspondences with Gross, gaining more insight into the composer’s perspective.

“Producing music has been challenging for us during COVID-19 as we could not safely meet in person,” Thoma concluded. “We could not play together over any platform (like Zoom) due to internet latency issues. It was impossible to coordinate parts in real-time. That is how we arrived at this solution of building up the pieces through overdubs. Furthermore, since some of the students were not at school, we had to find music that allowed those at home to perform on the instruments they had at their disposal.”

Even with the COVID-19 safety restrictions in place, it is refreshing to see faculty and students working together and taking initiative to make music in a brand new way.

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