Music Major, University Scholars program, Bachelor of Arts degree - Dec. 08
Recipient of URECA Grant for Creative Activities, Fall 08, to support upcoming concert
Photo left (courtesy of Thane Plambeck): Vi Hart on bamboo structure built by math conference participants
Dr. Perry Goldstein, Music
"I do want to compose. Where I want to go with that I’m not sure. Because it’s difficult to just compose and magically receive money for it. "
Interview: read more >>
Researchers of the Month: past features
Update: featured in NYTimes on 1/17/11 - "Bending and Stretching Classroom Lessons to Make Math Inspire" / for Mathematical Doodling
Photo (left): Octavius and Bill, by Vi Hart.
Stony Brook Premiere of
Harry Potter Septet
Performers: Claire Fowler, Veronica Gonzalez, Darla Gutierrez, David Kim, Jenny LaBonte, Maura O'loughlin, Shih-Han Pan
Place: Tabler Center for Arts, Culture & Humanities
Date: December 5, 4 pm
Researcher of the Month
About Vi Hart
There are a great many Harry Potter fans, deeply familiar with J.K Rowling's 7 book series and its elaborately constructed magical world following Harry's 7 years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. One such fan, at age 11 (the same age as Harry was when discovered his wizarding heritage!), in fact vividly remembers staying up all night the eve of starting 6th grade, reading the 3rd book in the series. By the time the 7th and final Harry Potter book came out in 2007, this same fan —now an undergraduate music major and composer at SB—had a thought: "Oh, wouldn’t it be cute if you had a septet based on the Harry Potter books, and there were 7 movements, one for each book."
Vi Hart spent the next 7+7 months, working with her composition teacher Prof. Perry Goldstein, and composing a septet for violin, viola, cello, bass, piano, and two voices. The result was ...well, magic!: 1.5 hours of music, which will be performed on Friday, December 5th, and conducted by the talented undergraduate composer herself! For her research/creative activities project, Vi also received a URECA grant in support.
Like many musicians, Vi also has a deep love of mathematics. She presented a paper on "Using Binary Numbers in Music" at the annual Bridges Conference of Mathematics, Music, Art, Architecture and Culture (Netherlands, 2008); and also co-authored a paper, "Computational Balloon Twisting" which she presented at the Canadian Conference of Computational Geometry (Quebec, 2008). When asked about her predilections and talents in both spheres of music and mathematics, Vi reflected: "I think there’s definitely a connection. Maybe I’m biased because those are the two things I know how to do, so they’re the only things I know how to see connections between. They’re similar in that sense of discovery, having things fit together. When I’m composing a piece, I often feel that I know what has to come next and what makes sense. Certain notes work and other notes don’t work. If you can figure it all out and put it together, you end up with a beautiful piece. Mathematics is often the same way where you’re on this trip of discovery. Certain things work, certain things don’t. And when you’re done, you have something beautiful, elegant."
Vi Hart has also explored the visual arts, and sample works (charcoals, sculptures) can be viewed at www.vihart.com. Although plans for graduate school and the future are currently unclear, Vi has definite plans to travel around Europe following graduation in December. Correspondent Rita Skeeter of The Daily Prophet ventures to make another prediction: more creative contributions to the world are sure to follow from Vi Hart! Below are some excerpts of Vi's interview with URECA Director, Karen Kernan.
Karen: Tell me about your project.
Vi: I’m a composer and I’ve been composing for as long as I can remember. I got inspired last year by none other than the Harry Potter series. The project started off as a cute idea and then I just ran with it. It took about 14 months. But I completed a septet — originally 2 hours of music, which I’ve cut down to one and one-half hours. Now, I’m currently working on getting that septet performed.
How did you first get this idea of writing this composition?
Last summer when I began writing the septet was the summer that the seventh book came out. Seven is an important number in the Harry Potter books. So that was the founding idea of this piece. I thought: “Oh, wouldn’t it be cute if you had a septet based on the Harry Potter books, and there were 7 movements, one for each book. I thought it was a fun idea and then it happened. I did it. That was the surprising thing. Fourteen months later, I actually finished it! . . . It’s the biggest project I’ve ever worked on. It’s been quite a journey.
Who’s involved in this performance?
There are 7 players. The piece is for a string quartet— a violin, viola, cello, bass; plus a piano; and two female voices. So far, I’ve almost got my performers finalized. Almost more difficult than writing the thing in the first place is finding performers and arranging schedules and rehearsals…all the administrative work that I’m not so good at.
Tell me a little more about the composition process. Were you thinking of each book as a separate entity? Did you have ideas already in mind as far as themes? How did it work?
When I began each section, each book of the septet, I would reread the book itself looking for text because there are two voices in the septet, and they sing snippets of text, such as the sorting hat song… As I got to each subsequent book, I’d see how this text relates to something I did before. And I’d think: I can use that theme again. I can make connections. So they aren’t really separate movements. It all is a whole piece that reuses themes and develops them throughout the entire series.
Do you have a favorite theme?
Well as far as ideas of themes, in the books it’s the theme of love. How love conquers all. There’s the friendship kind of love. A mother’s love. . . and I use a lot of beautiful, lovely themes to develop this idea. I try to write beautiful music. And this theme is one that really lends itself well to making music.
What do you do with the dark sides of the book? Like Voldemort, or should I say, “he who cannot be named.”
They’re in there too! If you had an hour and a half of only nice, happy, pretty themes, it could get kind of boring!. . . But there’s a lot of conflict in my piece, creepy themes—minor music too. But always, it’s those beautiful themes that you come back to. And it’s so much better when you do come back to that theme you love after having heard all the darker music.
What were your best and worst days in going through this process of composition? Did you ever want to give up on this project?
I kept expecting that point to happen, that I’d get so far and then get bored and want to stop and say I’m tired of this, and I’m not inspired anymore. But that point never happened! I kept going and was constantly inspired. I took breaks sometimes, and then would get a burst to work again.
The performance hasn’t happened yet . . . but as far as best days, it is always great as a composer for people to actually hear your music, and to hear it yourself. That’s a huge motivation for me when I’m writing the piece. It’s not just that I want other people to hear it. I want to hear the piece. I need to hear my own music. I'm excited about the upcoming performance. I do think people will enjoy the music. It’s a lot of fun … And conducting is particularly exhilarating when you’re hearing your music performed. It gives you a sense of power… such a thrill. Because you know the slightest movement of your hand is going to be reflected by a huge response by your performers.
Tell me more about types of music you’ve worked on before, other compositions you'd done.
Starting by playing piano made it so that I knew how to write for piano. I also sang— so I knew how to write for voices. I played viola, so I knew how to write for strings. I play these instruments because I liked them. And they’re easy to write for because I play them. So they’re mostly the instruments I write for. I haven’t done too much with woodwinds and brass. I love the sound of strings and voices and of piano….I think they’re very natural. Other sounds I like also. But they don’t work as well alone.
Tell me about your mentor’s influence on the creative process.
My composition teacher Perry Goldstein has been very supportive of this piece. He’s been helpful in looking at the pieces with me, and offering suggestions — which often I don’t take! But it does help me to put the piece in perspective. Mostly, what’s important when writing is that you know what you’re doing and that everything that’s there is there for a reason. When he says, “Take a look at this section. I noticed you did this…” or “Don’t you think something else would be better?”…..if I then look at that and can’t justify why I did it a certain way, and why it makes sense, then I would change it. So having him there to look over what I’m writing is definitely good in that it helps me justify what I’m doing. And that way, I understand it myself more.
How do you dissociate yourself from the music of the movies, the music written for the film versions of Harry Potter?
I’ve seen all of the films so far. The only theme I really remember is Hedwig’s theme. But music in a movie is very different than music when you’re having music for its own sake. Because in a movie, the music isn’t supposed to be distracting, it’s background music. …When you’re writing music that’s meant to be listened to by itself, you write completely differently.
How did you get involved in composition? Did your high school have a strong music program?
Northport HS has an excellent music program: 4 years of composition and theory. But even before that, there was a piano in my house when I was growing up. And with a piano in the house, I couldn’t help but be attracted to it and play it. I’d make up music. I didn’t know how to read music for a very long time….but I’d make up my own music to play.
You didn’t have formal piano lessons?
I actually did take piano lessons for a couple of months and I hated them…because I had to play what the piano teacher wanted me to play and not what I wanted to play. I didn’t think they were interesting at all when I was young. So I stopped taking lessons early on. But I kept on playing. In a way, I developed a lot of awful habits by teaching myself how to play my own compositions. But it may have been a benefit for composing. Exploring the instrument without instruction can help you be more creative in that aspect (even if I might never be a concert pianist!).
Did you start off as a music major at Stony Brook?
Yes, and the teachers are excellent, and the graduate students are very excellent… excellent performers. So for a composer, it’s ideal. When I have a piece, and I have a piano part that’s way too difficult for an undergraduate…I can go to a grad student, and say, can you do this? And they can, because they’re very good!
Tell me about your future plans.
I’ve considered film scoring. Musical theater. Maybe I will go to graduate school. …I haven’t quite decided yet. I do want to compose. Where I want to go with that I’m not sure. Because it’s difficult to just compose and magically receive money for it.
What are some of your other interests?
Reading. I love reading. I read all the time. I read like I compose…in huge chunks. I get a book, and I finish it that night even if I stay up all night. I remember I got the 3rd Harry Potter book the first day it came out. It was the first day of 6th grade for me. I had just turned 11 and I got the book and I stayed up all night reading it. I do things very intensely. . . I still lose a lot of sleep to reading— and to composing. I’m also a re-reader. I never feel like I’m wasting time on a book I’ve already read, though, because I do also read a lot of new books. But I love to re-read things multiple times, to re-enter that world of a book that I love. . .
I’m also in the judo club here on campus. It’s fun…I spend so much time in my own head so it’s fun to throw people and get thrown, and struggle physically instead of mentally for awhile.
I’m also a math hobbyist. But I don’t do that in connection with school. I enjoy going to math and art conferences. I presented at the Bridges Math and Art conference last summer. That was a lot of fun.
What was your presentation/paper about?
It was about using binary numbers in music which is a fun way to compose using a new tool and putting math in music. Also last summer, I presented a paper at CCCG, the Canadian Conference of Computational Geometry. It had nothing to do with music. I love geometry and mathematics. And this paper was another fun one about computational balloon twisting, co authored with Eric and Martin Demaine. Our paper was about what you can twist out of balloons, what different structures you can make . . . . It was a lot of fun to write and to present.
Math and music talents and interests often seem to be correlated. Don’t you find that people are very often drawn to both?
I think there’s definitely a connection. Maybe I’m biased because those are the two things I know how to do, so they’re the only things I know how to see connections between. They’re similar in that sense of discovery, having things fit together. When I’m composing a piece, I often feel that I know what has to come next and what makes sense. Certain notes work and other notes don’t work. If you can figure it all out and put it together, you end up with a beautiful piece. Mathematics is often the same way where you’re on this trip of discovery. Certain things work, certain things don’t. And when you’re done, you have something beautiful, elegant.
That’s great that you’re pursued this interest in mathematics as well as music.
My love of geometry and mathematics is definitely my father’s influence. Ever since I tagged along with him to my first conference, I enjoyed myself so much that I look for opportunities to go to fun conferences ever since. Bridges is a wonderful conference. I’m actually the music organizer for that conference now. And I do enjoy presenting….When you’re presenting a paper, you should really want to tell others about something you think is interesting. At a conference, especially one where the environment is friendly, and you can meet everyone …it’s like telling all of your friends about something cool you did. And it’s fun. I got a lot of great feedback from people interested in my work and who enjoyed the presentation.
When you’re hard at work in the composition process, what frustrates you?
Writing music is a creative process, and often… you can’t sit down and force yourself to do it. I used to compose by waiting for inspiration to strike, and then I’d be inspired, sit down and get an incredible amount of work done in a short time. Then maybe I would not do any work for a month. And then I’d have another burst….What I’ve learned with this project is that sometimes by sitting down and actually saying, now I have to work, now I want to finish this piece, you actually can get better at controlling your creative bursts and being able to work when you want to. It’s very important to know how to do this.
It's a bit like writing, it seems.
It’s very much like writing. Especially in that, with writing, people have the idea that you are a talented great writer or you’re not. Same thing with composing: people tend to think, someone is a genius or they’re not. Both are skills that can be learned, and take practice. If you sit down and put a lot of work into it, you can be a great writer or a great composer. It’s not that you just sit down and write your first novel and it comes out wonderfully. It’s not a magical process …it’s something you actually have to do work for.
Do you have any advice to other students?
Two things. First is to see the value in what you’re doing. And in everything you’re doing. Even for example if you’re struggling through DEC classes that you have to take, it’s important to see that value in that and realize how it will help you and to enjoy yourself. The second thing is …don’t procrastinate. I don’t mean that in your work for school. I mean …people often say, "maybe I’ll write a book some day," or "some day I'll do a huge composition project." The time is now to do things. So if you have something you think maybe you’ll do someday , what better time is there than now? Life is now! Not . . . when I graduate, or when I’m done with a midterm. Life will always keep coming at you. You’ve just got to do what you want to do! And there is the time, even if it’s only a little bit. You always have enough time to do something if you really want to.