2018-2019 Dean's Essay Prize Winners

First Prize: Shulamit Sarid
Essay:Infinite Variety – The Collaborative Works of Yo-Yo Ma”.
Prize: $1,000.

French-born Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma is one of the preeminent cellists of our time. He remains devoted to the classical repertoire yet has often sought out musicians outside the classical sphere and collaborated with them. In 1998, Ma founded The Silk Road Ensemble, a non-profit project that assembles diverse cultures and musicians by commissioning new pieces as well as supporting education and cross-cultural artistic partnerships. This article explores Yo-Yo Ma’s intercultural collaborations in light of contemporary theories of modernism and transnationalism. Drawing upon his many interviews, lectures, and films, I survey Ma’s multicultural childhood and anthropological training, as well as analyze his most recent collaborative album Sing Me Home. Due to the transnational and political nature of Ma’s works along with their global impact, I would argue that Yo-Yo Ma is among the leading cellists who contributed to the modernization of cello playing in the second half of the twentieth century.

Second Prize: Laurence Willis
Essay: “Comprehensibility and Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 9”.
Prize: $500.

Between 1959 and 1995, Ben Johnston wrote ten string quartets and most use just intonation. During this period, North American microtonal music came in two varieties: extensions of equal temperament and just intonation. Although we often describe just intonation and equal temperament as categorically separate from one another, this can be somewhat illusory in practice since both may facilitate the exploration of novel sonorities. Certainly, in microtonal communities, neither category is monolithic. Although two composers may share similar aesthetic goals such as pureness and beauty, no standardized just-intonation practice exists either conceptually or notationally. For example, Tenney’s Arbor Vitae (2006) and Johnston’s “With Solemnity” from String Quartet No. 7 (1984) employs completely different methods of pitch derivation and notation. While these compositions may both be described as just-intonation works, they are otherwise relatively unalike. Johnston’s String Quartet No. 9 (1988) is different again: the quartet’s tonal pitch structures and recognizable forms expose the abnormality of its intonation.

Johnston’s just-intonation music is of startling aural variety and presents novel solutions to age-old tuning problems. In this paper, I describe the way that Johnston reoriented his compositional practice in the 1980s, as evidenced in his musical procedures. Johnston became aware of the disconnect between Western art music composers and their audiences. He therefore set about composing more accessible music that listeners could easily comprehend. His String Quartet No. 9 gives an instructive example of the negotiation between just intonation and comprehensibility as it reveals an evolution of just-intonation pitch structures. This paper provides an analytical method for exploring Johnston’s works in a way that moves beyond describing the structure of his system and into more musically tangible questions of form and process.