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On February 11, I received a name from MIT’s govt director of Institute occasions and protocol, Gayle Gallagher. President Reif had simply introduced that MIT would once more be conducting graduation on-line—and to open the ceremony, we would have liked a compelling piece of music that will evoke renewal as we started to emerge from the pandemic. 

After practically a yr of socially distanced educating, studying, and residing, I envisioned music that not solely mirrored upon the losses and challenges we’ve confronted but in addition embraced optimism about how we would come again from darkness as a greater and extra considerate society. Involving many music college students and highlighting MIT’s iconic campus shortly turned priorities. And the intimacy of the voice was a should.

But what was possible, given MIT’s covid protocols? With few exceptions, college students weren’t allowed to play or sing collectively in the identical areas. And who—on quick discover—may craft a composition with such a particular intention, and for the weird mixed forces of orchestra, wind ensemble, jazz ensemble, Senegalese drumming ensemble, and a number of choirs? We wanted a composer with the technical {and professional} chops to deal with such a frightening process—and the center and humanity to perceive why it was wanted for this second in time. 

I immediately knew that Tony Award–­successful alumnus Jamshied Sharifi ’83, together with his lengthy historical past of working with MIT college students and his willingness to tackle large-scale tasks, was the one individual for the job. Always in excessive demand—even throughout the pandemic—as an arranger, producer, and composer for Broadway, movie, and artists in lots of genres, he agreed to do it directly. 

Because this undertaking would contain singers, not like the instrumental collaborations we’d finished through the years, we knew we had to discover an acceptable textual content. At Gayle’s suggestion, I contacted MIT poet Erica Funkhouser, who compiled a few of her college students’ current poems in regards to the pandemic. And as soon as Jamshied learn them, his imaginative and prescient turned clear. “The emotional openness, simplicity, and, at times, aching sadness of their writing was my guiding light,” he says, “and informed all compositional decisions.” 

From inbox to realization

Though I’ve coordinated different advanced, large-scale live shows, this undertaking was uncharted territory. It concerned organizing recording periods for 5 ensembles, accommodating college students not on campus, rehearsing in individual and on-line, and structuring a 10-hour movie shoot in 5 places on campus. The logistical challenges have been mind-boggling—we even had to get a large crane on the sidewalk exterior of 77 Mass. Ave. moved.

On May 3—a month and a day earlier than the commencement-day premiere—Jamshied’s rating and midi file for Diary of a Pandemic Year arrived in my inbox. I knew nicely what he was able to, however what he’d despatched introduced me to tears. The circulate, the tone, his dealing with of the textual content, and the best way he formed this five-and-a-half-minute sonic journey from darkish to gentle—all of it was simply good. Because he wished vocalists to hear their elements with actual voices, he had additionally taken on the arduous process of recording all of them for the audio file himself. 

My colleagues and I have been off and operating to deliver the piece to life. Multimedia specialist Luis “Cuco” Daglio—who helped maintain Music and Theater Arts musical performances going for 15 straight months—once more donned his superhero cape, recording seven separate periods for teams of MIT musicians. 

So how did the final virtual performance come collectively? First, all of the instrumentalists and vocalists recorded themselves enjoying or singing to Jamshied’s midi file. Jamshied then combined and mastered all these tracks—nicely over 200 of them—till Diary of a Pandemic Year was remodeled right into a residing, respiration piece of music.

“Reading the MIT poets’ selected lines, I began to get a sense of the impact of the pandemic on young people—its larger significance given their fewer years on the planet, its limiting force on a time that should for them be exploratory.” 

—Jamshied Sharifi ’83

During the epic filming day—overseen by Clayton Hainsworth, director of MIT Video Productions (MVP)—the unique file was amplified by way of audio system for all gamers and singers to carry out to reside. Even with the restriction of getting to play or sing to the midi monitor, it nonetheless felt revelatory. Emmy Award–successful MVP producer and editor Jean Dunoyer ’87 led the video crew, which fantastically captured the emotional scope of the composition and the expressiveness of the scholars’ efficiency.

“At the end of a long year and a half of meeting to make music over Zoom and in separate practice rooms, filming the music video gave us a chance to perform together in person in a very meaningful way,” says MIT Wind Ensemble saxophonist Rachel Morgan, a graduate scholar within the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “It meant so much to see what MIT music can do!”

While Jamshied was working his audio-mixing magic, Jean, whom I think about the opposite magician of the undertaking, was creatively translating the rating to movie. “I wanted the piece to be an invitation to the community to return to campus, unmasked and in person,” he explains. “The joy of togetherness was the thing that was most missed by our students over the past months, and when the signal arrived that the vaccine was working, the yearning to gather once again was palpable.”

Powerful messages for the longer term

The work everybody took on to notice Diary of a Pandemic Year was emblematic of the central function music, and the humanities normally, play within the lives of so many MIT college students. It testified to how decided college students, school, and employees had been to make sure the continuation of music efficiency underneath very making an attempt circumstances because the begin of the pandemic. 

As Erica put it, “Diary of a Pandemic Year felt like a musical postcard to the graduates from The World, even though it could only have been created at MIT.” 

Days earlier than the premiere, Jamshied mirrored upon the universality of the piece and its central message. “Reading the MIT poets’ selected lines, and the longer poems from which they were drawn, I began to get a sense of the impact of the pandemic on young people—its larger significance given their fewer years on the planet, its limiting force on a time that should for them be exploratory and expansive, and its uncomfortable place in a matrix of unfolding calamities brought on primarily by human inattention and hubris,” he wrote. “The current moment feels hopeful; the birds sing of new life. But I sense in the pandemic a warning, and an unsubtle suggestion that we should not ‘return to normal,’ but seek an evolved, equitable, and holistic way of structuring our world. Our young people know this in their bones. We should listen.” 

Frederick Harris Jr. of the Music and Theater Arts school is music director of the MIT Wind Ensemble and the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble.

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