On February 11, I got a call from Gayle Gallagher, Executive Director of Events and Protocol at the MIT Institute. President Reif had just announced that MIT would host the launch online again – and to open the ceremony, we needed a compelling piece of music that would evoke renewal as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.
After nearly a year of teaching, learning, and living socially distant, I envisioned music that not only reflected the losses and challenges we faced, but also the optimism about how we could come back from the shadows as a better and more reflective society. Engaging large numbers of music students and showcasing MIT’s iconic campus quickly became priorities. And voice privacy was a must.
But what was doable, given MIT’s covid protocols? With a few exceptions, students were not allowed to play or sing together in the same spaces. And who, on short notice, could create a composition with such a specific intention, and for the unusual combined forces of an orchestra, wind ensemble, jazz ensemble, Senegalese percussion ensemble and of several choirs? We needed a composer with the technical and professional skills to tackle such a daunting task, and the heart and humanity to understand why it was necessary at this precise moment.
I knew straight away that the former Tony Award winner Jamshied Sharifi ’83, with his long history of working with MIT students and his willingness to take on large-scale projects, was the only person for the job. Still in high demand, even during the pandemic, as an arranger, producer and songwriter for Broadway, film, and artists of many genres, he agreed to do so immediately.
Because this project would involve singers, unlike the instrumental collaborations we had done over the years, we knew we had to find a suitable text. At Gayle’s suggestion, I reached out to MIT poet Erica Funkhouser, who has compiled some of her students’ recent poems on the pandemic. And once Jamshied read them, his vision became clear. “The emotional openness, simplicity and, at times, the painful sadness of their writing were my beacons,” he says, “and informed all composition decisions.”
From inbox to completion
Although I coordinated other complex and large-scale concerts, this project was uncharted territory. This involved organizing recording sessions for five ensembles, welcoming off-campus students, rehearsing in person and online, and structuring a 10-hour shoot in five locations on campus. The logistical challenges were mind boggling – we even had to set up a huge crane on the sidewalk outside 77 Mass. Ave. moved.
On May 3, a month and a day before the premiere of Day One, Jamshied’s score and midi file for Diary of a pandemic year arrived in my inbox. I knew what he was capable of, but what he sent made me cry. The flow, the tone, his handling of the text, and the way he shaped this five-and-a-half-minute sound journey from black to light, it was all perfect. Because he wanted the singers to hear their parts in real voices, he also undertook the arduous task of recording them all for the audio file itself.
My colleagues and I were running away to bring the room to life. Multimedia specialist Luis “Cuco” Daglio – who has helped maintain musical performance in music and the theater arts for 15 consecutive months – donned his superhero cape again, recording seven separate sessions for groups of musicians from MIT.
So how the final virtual performance come together? First of all, all the instrumentalists and singers recorded themselves playing or singing on the Jamshied midi file. Jamshied then mixed and mastered all of these tracks – well over 200 of them – until Diary of a pandemic year has been transformed into a living and breathing piece of music.
During the epic day of filming – overseen by Clayton Hainsworth, director of MIT Video Productions (MVP) – the original file was amplified through speakers so all players and singers could perform live. Even with the restriction of having to perform or sing on the midi track, it still seemed revealing. Emmy Award-winning MVP producer and editor Jean Dunoyer ’87 led the video team, which beautifully captured the emotional reach of the composition and the expressiveness of the students’ performance.
“At the end of a year and a half of reuniting to make music on Zoom and in separate rehearsal rooms, the filming of the clip gave us the opportunity to perform together in person in a very meaningful way. Said Rachel, saxophonist for the MIT Wind Ensemble. Morgan, a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “It meant so much to see what MIT Music can do! “
While Jamshied worked his audio mixing magic, Jean, whom I consider to be the other magician on the project, creatively translated the score into film. “I wanted the play to be an invitation to the community to come back to campus, unmasked and in person,” he explains. “The joy of being together was the thing our students missed the most over the past few months, and when the signal came that the vaccine was working, the desire to come together again was palpable.”
Powerful messages for the future
The work everyone undertook to achieve Diary of a pandemic year was emblematic of the central role that music and the arts in general play in the lives of so many MIT students. It was a testament to the determination of students, faculty and staff to ensure continued musical performance under very difficult circumstances since the start of the pandemic.
As Erica said, “Diary of a pandemic year looked like a musical postcard for The World graduates, although it could only have been created at MIT.
A few days before the premiere, Jamshied reflected on the universality of the play and its central message. “As I read the verses selected by the MIT poets and the longer poems from which they were taken, I began to get a sense of the impact of the pandemic on young people – its greater importance given their less years on the planet, its limiting force over a time that should for them be exploratory and expansive, and its uncomfortable place in a matrix of ongoing calamities brought about primarily by human inattention and pride, ”he wrote . “The present moment is full of hope; the birds sing of new life. But I sense in the pandemic a warning and an unsubtle suggestion that we should not “go back to normal” but seek an evolved, fair and holistic way to structure our world. Our young people know it in their bones. We should listen.
Frederick Harris Jr. from the Faculty of Music and Theater Arts is Music Director of the MIT Wind Ensemble and the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble.