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String quartet connects music to class lessons across disciplines

It's like a private concert with world-class musicians and a lesson set to music with liner notes when the Vega String Quartet comes into a classroom.

Eight times each semester, Emory's quartet-in-residence partners with professors in a variety of disciplines to connect the music the artists play to the lessons the professor is teaching.

"We started doing this [visiting classrooms] while we were the Coca-Cola visiting artist in residence at Emory in 2002-03. It was so rewarding, we built it into our job description in 2006 when we became the first ever full time quartet in residence at Emory," says Yinzi Kong, violist.

Vega String Quartet's other members are Domenic Salerni, first violin; Jessica Shuang Wu, second violin; and Guang Wang, cello.

For fall semester 2014, the quartet has performed for classes in religion, language, world culture, memory studies, music therapy, composition and dance.

Religion professor Gary Laderman brought the Vega in to perform for his class twice this semester.

"I'm teaching religion and music, so I arranged for two sessions, one more focused on music and the body, and another more focused on music in Christianity," he says.

The performances, Laderman notes, are "more than experiential learning."

"It really is allowing students, and all of us in the course, to get out of our heads, in a sense, and more into our bodies in the presence of performers and sounds that are affecting us in similar ways, biologically speaking, but also in markedly different ways, based on cultural backgrounds brought into the room," he says.

"It's also a very intimate setting, not a major spectacle on a big stage. That was part of what made our visits so special and revealing. And of course the religious dimensions of all this make it even more complex and compelling."  

For Kong, the experience of performing for classes "is really about sharing."

"I think you get the most powerful experience when we're all in it together. And it's very similar to religious practice," she says. "That's why music is so wonderful. It is not so literal. It can be relatable."

Here, a look inside two of the Vega String Quartet's recent class performances:

Class: REL 370 Religion and Music

This course explores the intersections of religion and music in history and contemporary culture, using theoretical tools from cultural studies and neuroscience, theology and ethnography.

  • Music: Covering several religious traditions, the quartet played four pieces, including one by Hayden ("The Seven Last Words of Christ"); the Kol Nidre from Yom Kippur services, Beethoven and a contemporary piece composed by Chinese-born American composer Zhou Long, illustrating Buddhism. They also played recordings of early-music chant.
  • Connections: "[The music] shows how close the various traditions were in the Middle Ages. If you think of Middle Eastern culture in the Islamic tradition and the Christian tradition, they weren't really that far apart," said Vega violinist Salerni.

The Buddhist composition is illustrative of how "the Chinese take a more relaxed approach to religion than Western thought," said violinist Wu.

  • Reactions: "I just thought it was really cool how there is such a connection between culture and tradition and music, and how the Buddhism piece made me think of like Netflix when you go to the Chinese section of the movies, the intros and stuff like that, it was so perfectly in sync," said one of the students in the class.

"It does open up into other cultures, things that sound familiar where you think you've heard it before," Laderman said of the Buddhism piece. "It did have that different kind of musical texture that was so different obviously from the Beethoven, the Western material."

"The string quartet is like religion," said another student. "You can compare it to religion, all these different little parts. All those different parts can mean different things and you can make different things out of them, but you still need all of them to come together to make this whole cohesive thing."

CLASS: ILA 790 / SPAN 550 / CPLT 751 / MBC 700  Mapping Memory: History, Culture and the Brain

This is an interdisciplinary graduate seminar co-led by literature and culture professors Angelika Bammer and Hazel Gold, affiliated respectively with the Institute for Liberal Arts and the department of Spanish and Portuguese. The course explores the relationship between history (events that happened) and memory (how we remember them). The Vega String Quartet's visit complemented the class examination of the Holocaust, loss and memory, with the musicians presenting a series of "pieces that deal with trauma or tragedy on a large scale but on an intimate scale as well," Salerni said.

  • Music: The quartet played pieces by Puccini ("Crisantemi" or "Chrysanthemums," a floral symbol for death and mourning in both Italian and Chinese cultures); Mendelssohn's Opus 80 in reaction to his sister's death; Schubert ("Death and the Maiden"); "The Butterfly Concerto" from a well-known regional Chinese opera; Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" (the soundtrack for 9/11, Gold noted); and Vladimir Martynov's "The Beatitudes."
  • Connections: To Bammer's question on responding to grief and loss through the music, Wu noted that music composed in minor keys is sadder and darker and cellist Wang pointed out that the keys with more sharps and flats don't get as much vibration from the instruments so a piece sounds more closed. 

  • "It's really open to interpretation," said Kong. "One reaction as in the Puccini is sadness. I hear anger toward fate in Mendelssohn." 

"I heard anger and panic," agreed Bammer of the Mendelssohn.
  • Reactions: "Every time you play, you create this very specific memory environment for each individual here who might have no idea about (the composers you're playing)," said one student, creating an "extremely fluid conduit that something has nothing to do with Puccini or the situation. So as musicians you are openers of the archives on the one hand and creators of memory environments on the other."

 "In each of these pieces we are finding a way to tell a story of loss that either somehow is happily resolved or burnished by the glow of memory, or tragic and unresolved and we still mourn," Gold said.

"That might help explain why after 9/11, Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' was the commemorative piece that you heard constantly. It became memorialized itself, partly based on brain-body-feeling connection as well as the cultural factors," she continued.

Bammer said, "What [Barber's 'Adagio'] made me think of — this is totally perverse — is Jimi Hendrix's version of the national anthem. I hear in this piece the illusion of comfort that we are all in this together; we all harmonize in the same way. There was that moment right after 9/11 when that was the national promise. I just remembered it didn't work out that way.

"Hendrix starts off that way but then it's, 'Let's not kid ourselves' and it goes screech. It's ideology. It's that promise or illusion of a promise that it can be all OK."

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