Third Album Class Composes Original Music

by ALEXA SCHMIDTFeatures Editor

This is the third consecutive year that Andy Bauer, director of Performing Arts, has run the album class. It is a three-hour class in which students study a particular album, and perform it from start to finish at the end of the semester.

Previous albums include The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. However, there is a catch to this year’s class. The twelve students are making their own album, with original music that they will have composed for a little over five months. This process is completely new, but the students and Bauer are excited to tackle the challenge.

Bauer wanted each person to write two or three songs for the album, or at least sketches and ideas, before the winter break was over.

“Some people did something as simple as humming a melody into their iPhone, and then sent it to me with no chords, no structure, no nothing. Just words and a tune. But other people had songs pretty much all worked out with the chords and the arrangement and everything. There are varying degrees of finished,” Bauer said.

He continued.

“There are people who have never written a song, or written any kind of composition in their life, and suddenly they realize that they could do it. That is astonishingly gratifying to me as someone to help them flesh out their ideas and order them into a formal structure and have it sound like really decent music,” he said.

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Senior Erin Plitt featured in a promotional video for the class. ERIN PLITT / COURTESY

Senior Erin Plitt is taking the class for the second time, and said there is no “normal” class.

“For a lot of us, including myself, it’s my first time composing, so the basic structure tries to be the first hour of class we analyze an existing song for form, see what we can learn from it, to keep our music interesting and well-educated,” Plitt said. “After that we sometimes break up the music. Instrumentalists, vocalists, sometimes the band stays together and we try to brainstorm things, work out kinks in songs, but it really depends on the songs we’re doing,” she said.

Collaboration is a huge part of the class. Bauer described it as a “semester-long group project.” For Plitt, turning to other students for help is essential in order to develop her ideas. She turns to her classmates for help with lyrics or phrasing, and uses Bauer for compositional work.

“I don’t play any instruments, so just to figure something basic out like chords, I’ll bring my idea of my melody to Andy, and we’ll sit down together and sing through the song, play through the song, figure out what we like, what we don’t like, and where we think it can go,” Plitt said. “It really has been for me, an extraordinarily collaborative effort that I think is really really fun to participate in. It’s a feeling that I’ve never had before, and I love it.”

The main theme of the album is change, which Bauer admits is a broad term.

“It just gives us a little bit of a direction in terms of how we want the music to be thematically. We’re not strictly bound to that, nor are we bound to any interpretation of that word,” Bauer said.

“It doesn’t really hold anyone accountable. Any song for it to be interesting needs to be about change in some way. Change in relationship, change in season, change in the times. I feel like if you look at any piece of music, you can figure out and interpretation,” Plitt said.

She continued.

“Also because for many of us in the class, the vast majority of us are seniors. This is our last semester together, our last semester at Manhattan, potentially our last semester at school, so we’re all currently experiencing a really dramatic change in our life, and I think that that’s we were all hoping to find inspiration from. In the natural changes that we’re experiencing, because this is just a time of change for us,” she said.

Senior Anna Occhino is in the class for the first time, and has previous experience with writing songs.

“A lot of my music is basically about personal experiences in my life and I feel like any songwriting is more personal,” she said. “I feel like that’s kind of the best way to do it because if you experience something, and you’re able to write  something about it and produce art from it, I think that’s amazing.”

But part of sharing songs with others is getting their reactions. The class has a unique dynamic, and can be challenging at times. It pushes the students to get out of their comfort zones.

Plitt acknowledges that putting out original ideas makes one vulnerable and subject to criticism.

“You’re extraordinarily vulnerable, your defenses are up, and everybody wants to kind of tear everything apart. Because we want to get to the meat of the music, we want to get to the interesting parts of the class. But at the same time, we’re all very guarded so there’s a lot of struggle, but I think it’s a beautiful struggle to see this tension. Because it means that it matters,” she said.

“You’re sharing a side of yourself that barely anyone has ever heard, and you’re sharing songs that are so personal to you, it’s hard to show people that you’ve been to school with, but don’t really know that side of yourself,” Occhino added.

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Students collaborate in writing both composition and lyrics during their class. ERIN PLITT / COURTESY

Currently, there are about twelve songs in total, with vocals and instrumentals. The class will add a medley of songs in addition to the twelve, which will encompass all the little ideas that never became full songs.

“That’s very much modeled after the two previous album classes that we have studied. So the Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road albums had a side A, where the songs could stand as individual pieces of music, and then side B that kind of just flows one song into the next,” Plitt said.

Bauer expects the class to continue tweaking the music up until the day before the final dress rehearsal. In addition to meeting with his students during class time, Bauer finds himself meeting with students almost every day to go over the songs, and work one-on-one with them.

“One of the things that I’m really adamant about is that this is not going to be a garage band. This is not going to be just a bunch of people blasting away at their instruments and singing. This is going to be orchestrated, arranged, and nuanced and have different sounds. It’s going to be well thought out,“ Bauer said.

He continued.

“This is by far the most difficult class that I’ve done of the three. Not that the music is exceptionally difficult, but getting the music in place is whole other process. It’s going to be great. I have great confidence. I can see that the ideas that people are presenting are really good. They’re really strong musical ideas,” he said.