It begins with fingernails rubbing against music stands.
It ends with a slab of wood being laid on the strings of a grand piano.
In all the sounds that come between, University of South Florida composer Baljinder Sekhon, PhD, hopes listeners find new appreciation for music — and much more.
Because he certainly did.
“This piece deals with things that we don’t often talk about,” said Dr. Sekhon, an assistant professor of composition in the USF School of Music.
“Hopefully those who hear it will discover something new about themselves. Maybe they will become better in some way, or more self-aware, or more accepting of realities they’ve struggled with. It’s a piece that creates the opportunity for internal reflection and change.”
Dr. Sekhon, whose previous works have debuted at such esteemed venues as New York’s Carnegie Hall, will premiere “Six Movements for Piano and Percussion Ensemble: Death Is an Adviser,” at the USF School of Music at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 2. Tickets are available at boxoffice.arts.usf.edu.
It is the first time in three years that a work by Dr. Sekhon has been premiered at USF.
While attendees of the event will draw their own conclusions from the thunderous beats and trickling chimes of “Death Is an Adviser,” for Dr. Sekhon, the piece represents new ground broken in both his professional and personal lives.
The 20-minute piece is the third installment in a series of works inspired by the shamanistic philosophies described by American anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, whose writings recount his time as an apprentice to the sorcerer Don Juan Matus in the 1960s.
“Death Is an Adviser” takes its name from a chapter in Cataneda’s book, “Journey to Ixtlan.”
“It deals with the awareness of death and how such awareness advises our decision-making in life,” Dr. Sekhon said. “In this philosophy, knowing we are going to die influences every decision we make, whether we realize it or not.”
“Death Is an Adviser” is broken into six movements, which reflect the death-as-a-certainty theme through titles such as “Maybe Today, Maybe Tomorrow,” and “Now or Later.” Together, they tell the story of the primary character, the solo pianist, who for the USF premiere will be Assistant Professor of Piano Eunmi Ko, DMA.
Throughout the pianist’s life, she chases her dreams, imagines her future, and makes a litany of decisions, all of which is expressed through xylophones, bass drums, cymbals, marimbas, and a variety of other instruments played by students from the USF Percussion Ensemble.
As the piece progresses, student performers come forward to place items, including a triangle, a cymbal, and a block of wood, inside the piano, changing its sound and representing the changes happening within the pianist.
“The percussionists represent the pianist’s mind – her subconscious and imagination. It all becomes real in the end, when she is finally changed. In essence, she conquers herself and realizes her dreams.” Dr. Sekhon said.
Trained at the prestigious Eastman School of Music, Dr. Sekhon said “Death Is an Adviser” advances both his research interests.
“I am primarily known for percussion music, and my research is concerned with not only expanding the percussion repertoire but also with expanding the idea of what percussion music is,” he said.
To that end, “Death Is an Adviser,” calls for the musicians to make music by “rubbing any object close to you” —literally a note in the sheet music — and playing their instruments in unusual and new ways.
“In this piece, we have the musicians using percussion instruments to strike other percussion instruments. For example, playing a vibraphone with finger cymbals, and playing the inside of the piano with percussion instruments,” he said.
“I am repurposing the instruments in ways they were not intended to be used to create the sounds I imagine.”
In addition, Dr. Sekhon studies compositional processes, and more specifically, how composing can be integrated into everyday activities.
“Composers make their art alone. They tend to be very disconnected from people for long periods of time when they’re writing. For me, I’ve become aware of the impact that has on my children. This is my life’s work, but at the same time, I have this even more important need to spend time with my family,” he said.
“I wondered, ‘Is it possible to do both?’ Is it possible to create an intersection of both parts of my life?”
With “Death Is an Adviser,” Dr. Sekhon devised ways to involve his wife and daughters, 10-year-old Izabel and 5-year-old Skyler, in the writing process. Fitting, he said, because the piece is essentially about the limitations of one’s life and parents are very much aware of the limited time they have with their children.
“I had them draw numbers from a hat to determine pitch orderings, durations, and contours,” he said. “After selecting numbers for pitch and duration, and combining them, we’d run to the piano to play it and hear how it turned out. We made a game out of it.
“It was exciting to discover a way to do it all at once. Living and composing became a single activity for this piece.”
Dr. Sekhon said the piece changed as he collaborated with members of the USF Percussion Ensemble, as well as Dr. Ko and Professor of Percussion Robert McCormick, who conducts the piece.
The process resulted in a work Dr. Sekhon, and all of the students involved, will be proud to share with their audience on Sunday.
“Usually, when you go to a music school, you only focus on the music,” said Nicolas Remy, a junior majoring in percussion performance. “Through working on this piece, I’m learning how to be a performer as well. It’s excellent preparation for my future career.”
For more information about the USF College of the Arts and School of Music, visit arts.usf.edu.
Story by Rachel Pleasant, University Communications & Marketing. Video by Ryan Noone, University Communications & Marketing.