Category Archives: Music


Christopher K. Morgan & Artists Explore Homeland in Upcoming Performance

On Friday, March 22, Christopher K. Morgan, founder of the dance company Christopher K. Morgan & Artists (CKM&A), will arrive at Swarthmore College to perform Pōhaku, a solo dance theater piece that combines storytelling, hula, modern dance, classical music, and projection design to explore themes of the native people of Hawaii like land loss and fractured identity. Morgan will also take part in a residency on campus where students will have a chance to interact with him, learning about the Native Hawaiian culture including dances like hula.

Pōhaku is Morgan’s first work integrating mele (music) and hula with Western practices, leading him on a far deeper and richer understanding of his multiracial identity than anything he could have ever dreamed. Professor Olivia Sabee of the Dance Program and Professor Alba Newmann Holmes of the English Department found inspiration in Morgan’s experiences as a Native Hawaiian growing up under more Western influences, and wrote a grant to bring CKM&A to campus based on the idea and themes of homeland. This grant aims to bring together students, faculty, guest artists, and staff members to create dialogue and performances that engage with one another’s understanding of homeland.

According to Professor Holmes, “[they] were drawn to the idea of an interdisciplinary collaboration that would invite students, faculty and staff to think about the different ways in which we understand the places of our personal or ancestral origins and how, or if, our sense of homeland connects to our creative as well as our political lives.” Professor Sabee knew of CKM&A and believed that inviting Christopher K. Morgan was “a very natural fit, as his work explores his geographical cultural inheritance from Hawaii, and how he makes that inheritance his own.”

Their hope is that CKM&A will give audience members “the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which embodied experience can be both a means to connect across cultures and a way to create new knowledge.”

Morgan will also hold a modern dance master class on Friday, March 22, at 11:30 a.m. Professor Sabee says she is “excited for students—some of whom already met and/or worked with CKM/A in the fall—to deepen their connections with the company and its artistic staff, to experience what a range of types of work a company might present, in both terms of thematic and movement material, and to think about what it means to tackle serious themes in dance.”

These events are co-sponsored by the President’s Office Andrew W. Mellon Grant, and the performance will take place in the Lang Performing Arts Center on March 22 at 8 p.m.

Maria Consuelo de Dios ’21

lili tobias

“In This My Singing:” Women Composers Represented at Musicology Conference

On February 23rd, Music and Linguistics Major Lili Tobias ‘19 presented her paper titled, “‘All my heart, in this my singing:’ Amy Beach and the Women’s Clubs of New England,” at the American Musicology Society – New England (AMS-NE) Chapter’s winter meeting. The AMS-NE Chapter’s winter meeting invited proposals for roundtable sessions or workshops (pedagogical, performative, and/or scholarly). Successful proposals would position the author’s contribution with respect to previous scholarship, and suggests the paper’s significance for the musicological community.

The paper that Tobias presented at AMS-NE began as her senior comprehensive paper that she wrote for her music major. Under the guidance of Professors Barbara Milewski and Jon Kochavi, Tobias chose late 18th to early 19th century American composer, Amy Beach, as her research topic. “My main argument is that her music is best discussed and analyzed within the context of other music written and performed by women,” Tobias said. “This is because Beach wrote most of her music to be performed by musicians in women’s music clubs throughout New England, which is clear from her choice of instrumentation (piano and voice, mainly).”

Tobias further noted that Beach’s choice of instrumentation matches the skills of the women musicians in those music clubs. “From a theoretical perspective, too, Beach’s harmonic language matches that of other music written by women during this era,” Tobias said.

It was not a difficult choice for Tobias to research Beach’s music for her senior comprehensive paper, since Tobias enthusiastically exclaims that Beach is her favorite composer. Not only that, Tobias saw a point of intervention to previous scholarly research on Beach’s music. “I wanted to address the problems with many accounts of Beach’s music, since they often focus on her large-scale compositions,” Tobias said. “By writing about her songs, I hoped to emphasize that these small-scale works were integral to her career as a composer, specifically because they brought about social music-making within women’s music clubs.”

Tobias was grateful to have had the opportunity to share her research with the public and to be a part of this year’s AMS-NE conference. Tobias highlighted the fact that this year’s conference had so many presentations on music composed by women. Because of this, many presentations overlapped with topics that Tobias discussed in her paper, creating highly engaging conversations.

Tobias also had the opportunity to attend and support another Swarthmore student paper presentation at a different musicology conference. Recent graduate Rachel Hottle ‘18 presented her paper titled, “Influences of Bluegrass and Radiohead on Metric Complexity in the Punch Brothers,” at the 2019 Rutgers University Musicology Society (RUMS) conference. The Punch Brothers is a progressive bluegrass ensemble. In the paper, Hottle “proposes a comparative genre analysis of metric complexity in Punch Brothers, which highlights the influence of metric conventions common in bluegrass and the progressive rock style of Radiohead.”

Currently, Tobias does not have any specific plans to expand her own paper, however, she does want to do more research on the topic. Particularly, Tobias said “I would love to expand on the theoretical section, since I’m more of a theory person than a musicology person. I only got to collect data from three of Beach’s songs, so it would be great to do an entire corpus study of all her songs in order to provide better support for the main argument of the paper.”

David Chan ’19

Navdeep maini

Profile of Music Minor Navdeep Maini ’19

It was the summer before his senior year of high school and Navdeep Maini ‘19 heard “How to Save a Life,” by The Fray, being played on a piano. The beautiful music moved Maini and planted a desire within him to learn the introduction of the song. Without access to a keyboard, Maini turned to his tablet, and downloaded an app called “Piano Perfect.” With a “piano” available in the palm of his hands, Maini learned to play the introduction to “How to Save a Life.” Because of that experience of playing the piano, Maini signed up for “piano lab” at the beginning of senior year of high school.

Although that moment seems like a pivotal point in Maini’s musical training, Maini jokingly says, “My musical-training truly began around third grade with the recorder, going ham on some Buns, Hot Cross Buns.” Maini is referring to the English nursery rhyme, which is also an Easter song.

When it came time for his freshman year at Swarthmore College, Maini already knew he wanted to incorporate music into his studies, declaring a minor in the subject. With jokes aside, Maini exhibits a genuine interest in music, especially when it comes for his future. “I think a part of me felt like I had to complete something (major or minor) in music because getting a music or audio related job might be kind of cool,” Maini said.

Additionally, maintaining that same drive from his pivotal moment, Maini wanted an avenue to continue playing the piano. “I had interest in wanting to learn about how composers keep their audiences’ interests during long pieces and I also had interest in performance,” Maini said.

After taking many music classes for his major, Maini highlighted his interactions with Professor James Blasina and Professor Andrew Hauze. “Their teaching styles and methods are wonderful, and it feels like they do not mind teaching you beyond the scope of a class,” Maini said. “For example, when I was in Music 2b (Reading and Making Music: The Basics of Notation), Professor Blasina introduced me to the idea of moving to the relative minor in the middle of a song.”

Furthermore, Maini attributed his Music 48 voice lessons, his time in chorus and gamelan, and discussions with other students as other crucial learning moments. “Dr. Nancy Jantsch, my voice teacher, Professor Tom Whitman of Gamelan, and Professor Joe Gregorio of Chorus are all personable in their own ways and will work with you to not only create the best sound possible, but to enjoy music.”

Maini has written some original pieces, which he calls “simple amongst this land of complexity.” During two Parrish Lunch Hour Concerts, Maini has performed some of his original pieces. As for the near future, Maini is searching for a job in the software industry, but maintains that his interest in music will remain with him. “Music seemed interesting and theory seemed cool. Should I keep exploring this interest? What if I start hating computer science in the future? Is there something I could switch to? I think these questions fueled me towards more music and not less,” Maini concluded.

David Chan ’19


Charms, Riddles, and Elegies of the Medieval Northlands

On Friday, March 1, the renowned medieval music ensemble Sequentia will perform a series of Medieval Northlandic charms, riddles, and elegies at Swarthmore College. In this world-premiere performance, director, harpist, and vocalist Benjamin Bagby and his colleagues, vocalist and harpist Hanna Marti, vocalist Stef Conner, and flutist Norbert Rodenkirchen, will chant and sing these songs in Old English, Old High German, and Old Icelandic, displaying English Professor Craig Williamson’s original translations. Professor Williamson’s translations are taken from his recently published book The Complete Old English Poems, and these translations largely inspired Bagby to construct the musical lineup.

According to Professor Williamson, he and Bagby became interested in each others’ academic work on Beowulf about ten years ago. Since then, they’ve built a friendship centered on passion for medieval studies. After Professor Williamson published The Complete Old English Poems in 2017, Bagby was “overwhelmed” with its “beauty and its depth,” and, after corresponding with each other in the same year, Professor Williamson and Bagby planned this performance to showcase both Sequentia’s and Professor Williamson’s talents.

Among the pieces that Benjamin Bagby and Sequentia will perform are Old English riddles. Though Anglo-Saxon riddles are not set to music, what makes them special are their humor and sexual suggestiveness; they are the modern day equivalent of “dirty jokes”, except Old English Riddles have both a clean and “dirty” answer. In addition, the group will sing the Anglo-Saxon magic charm of Nine Herbs, a story of healing; the Old Icelandic Song of Grotti’s Milestone, the narrative of the rebellion of two slave girls against their king; Deor, the lamentation of a tribal singer rejected by his chieftain; the lament of the last survivor from Beowulf; and  Wulf and Eadwacer, a mysterious lament of a woman cut off from her lover, and some of the oldest recorded songs from the German-speaking people.

Listening to Sequentia’s performance, even if one is familiar with medieval music, is still worthwhile because no two performances of the same Medieval song will ever be the same. We usually think of music based on a certain song’s melody. However, medieval songs are “based on beats,” explains Professor Williamson. “We don’t really know the tunes. Music was never really written down in any of the Anglo-Saxon and Old Germanic languages…we have to reconstruct the melody.” So, one singer might perform the same song in a completely different way than another performer. This is especially true of Benjamin Bagby who, according to Professor Williamson, takes a more “storytelling” and “acting” approach in his performances.

In fact, Professor James Blasina of the Music Program hopes that his students will be inspired by Benjamin Bagby and Sequentia’s unique performance and see “the strong links between academic study and musical performance.” Professor Blasina says that it is tempting sometimes to try to to separate “history and context” and “ what is often referred to as the ‘music itself,’” when, in reality, “there is no such thing as the ‘music itself,’ and in order to understand the music, you have to understand more than just the notes on the page.” Benjamin Bagby and Sequentia, Professor Blasina says, exemplify just that. “To have them here is pretty spectacular,” Professor Blasina says, and he along with the Music Program feels so fortunate to be able to hear them perform live and interact with them in the classrooms.

If one is not familiar with Medieval music, however, Professor Blasina says we can still “appreciate the beauty of [the music] and find it interesting” simply by “listening to the aesthetics of the sound.” He also suggests paying particular attention to the humor in the text as a way to relate to these songs that might seem out of reach for some. Professor Blasina says that in much Medieval music, there is a “very strong sense of reverence, but also a very strong sense of irreverence.” Though it may seem ironic and paradoxical, this opposition is essential in portraying the humor and Professor Blasina says “if we can find the humor in that music” and “find the same things funny…that is one way to connect to other human beings.”

Professor Williamson is also a firm believer that, even though the songs Sequentia will be performing are from centuries ago, “there are elements of [the music] that cross the bridge between cultures and between times and between genders.”

“They were human beings,” Professor Williamson says. “Maybe they lived a different kind of life than we lived, but they had lovers, they had children, they had sorrows, they had joys…there are many ways in which they are like us.” In listening to Benjamin Bagby and Sequentia’s performance, Professor Williamson hopes that the audience will be able to see “what’s shared and what’s human between two times and two people” and form a profound connection that “crosses the bridge across time.”

The event is sponsored by the Cooper Foundation and will take place on Friday, March 1, in the Lang Concert Hall at 8 p.m.

Maria Consuelo de Dios ’21

Creativity Off-Campus: A Spotlight on Faculty Projects

Whether it is addressing the Latinx experience through music and performance, crafting a contemporary stage performance for taiko drumming, or teaching children how to live in the world through the practice of gamelan music, Music & Dance faculty members Belle Alvarez, Professor Joe Small, and Professor Thomas Whitman are making strides in their respective involvements.

belle alvarez

Belle Alvarez is a visiting Associate of Performance at Swarthmore College, where she also instructs Modern II. As a teaching artist, Alvarez aims to offer a joyful and healing experience that catalyzes reflection, unity, and collective transformation. In 2016, Alvarez was honored with a scholarship from the Bartol Foundation. Through the Bartol Foundation, Alvarez educates K-12 children in the award-winning Pierre Dulaine’s Dancing Classrooms and Friends Central School. “Students learn and create collaboratively, engaging the imagination, while learning foundational dance vocabulary to refine motor skills, discover movement potential, and to attain sound knowledge of the body,” Alvarez said.

Currently, Alvarez has been collaborating in performance and activism with a Philly-based artist: Ximena Violante ‘14. Violante graduated from Swarthmore College with a major in music and is now a part of a futuristic fusion band called Interminable. Interminable explores the modern diasporic experience, performing covers and originals, both in English and Spanish. “I first met Ximena at a fundraiser for an immigrant rights coalition,” Alvarez said. “We had common interest in music with roots in son jarocho and are both from Central America—she is from Mexico and I am from Honduras.”Ultimately, it was the chemistry and the shared desire for social change through art that drew Alvarez to Violante. “I wanted to collaborate because of the synergy and dynamism I felt with our respective approaches to music and dance,” Alvarez said. “We build community and tell the stories of our communities through our art.” Most recently, Alvarez performed for Interminable’s music video, Buscando Un Futuro.

joe small

Professor Joe Small is involved with two professional taiko drum ensembles during his time outside of Swarthmore College: TAIKOZ (Australia-based) and Eitetsu Fu-Un no Kai (Japan-based).

Small met TAIKOZ members in Japan at various points in 2007 and 2008, while doing an apprenticeship for the professional group, KODO. Most recently, from October 2017 to July 2018, Small began working with TAIKOZ in a more regular capacity in an extended residency. Activities included daily training, performing at various concerts, hosting taiko classes and workshops, and doing a school tour.

As for Eitetsu Fu-Un no Kai, Small came to know the group after purchasing Eitetsu Hayashi’s DVDs and CDs at a taiko drum conference. Eitetsu-san is a solo artist with a professional supporting ensemble named Fu-Un no Kai, which translates to “The Society/Gathering of Wind and Clouds.” It was not until 2006 when Professor Small would encounter Eitetsu Fu-Un no Kai at their four-day workshop during his Fulbright Fellowship in Japan. “Having already seen Eitetsu-san and the ensemble live, it was an absolutely incredible experience and I left both intrigued and in awe of their artistry and virtuosity upon the taiko,” Small said. Small became an official member of Eitetsu Fu-Un no Kai in September 2012, training, performing, and touring with them across Japan and overseas.

“In both cases, I hope to continue working, learning, and being involved in order to continue to forge my own path with taiko, and to share it with the Swarthmore College community,” Small said. “Particularly I want to follow Eitetsu-san’s approach (which TAIKOZ has made use of for their own artistic projects) to consider taiko drumming in terms of a creative contemporary art form for the stage, that receives wide influence from cultures around the world as well as from Japanese traditional folk and classical arts.”

Currently, Small is still putting together plans, especially for this coming summer. “I will be teaching at the bi-annual North American Taiko Conference in August, and it’s possible Eitetsu Hayashi and Fu-Un no Kai may have a concert in the midwest a few days later, still to be confirmed,” Small said. “I might be performing, or I might be assisting/translating, so it depends on the lineup and program.”

Chester Children's Gamelan Project

Professor Tom Whitman teaches Balinese Gamelan performance to local elementary school children in a program he created in 2004. Whitman initiated the program at Chester Community Charter School. Later on, he moved the program to Stetser Elementary School, staying there for about ten years. After that, for another couple of years, Whitman again coordinated the program at Chester Charter School for the Arts. As of fall of 2018, Whitman moved the program to North Philadelphia, at the William Kelly School, where he can spend more time with the children.

In the program, students learn to play gamelan instruments as a group. Gamelan refers to a traditional Indonesian ensemble of percussion instruments—mostly bronze-keyed xylophones, and some gongs and drums. “Gamelan music does not really have soloists,” Whitman said. “It is a group/community that comes together and everybody contributes an element to the overall texture.”

“So learning gamelan is also about teaching kids how to live in the world,” Whitman continued. “It is about cooperating and being polite and being able to be a productive member of a group that is really rewarding without stepping on anyone else’s toes.”

Additionally, students learn about Indonesian culture, though Whitman said, “I think a much more important piece of cultural exchange is that the kids get to meet college students. A big part of what I want to do is get little kids thinking about the possibility that college is a place where they might see themselves. Both in Chester and North Philly a lot of kids grow up in homes where it is just not something that they ever encounter.”

Without the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, Whitman would not have been able to start his program, so he is extremely grateful for their help and support. Furthermore, Whitman is always looking for more Swarthmore student volunteers to assist the program, so interested students should inquire through email ( As for next year, Whitman is brainstorming possible new iterations of his current program.

David Chan ’19

Cooper Series Brings Renowned Chicago-Based Groups to Campus

5/9/17 7:27:36 PM -- Chicago, IL Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Dance Evolve 2017 Cloudline by Robyn Mineko Williams © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017


On Friday, February 8th, two legendary Chicago-based groups – Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, a nationally renowned dance troupe, and Third Coast Percussion, a Grammy Award-winning percussion ensemble – take the stage together in Swarthmore’s Lang Performing Arts Center.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has for decades been a pioneering force in the field of contemporary dance. Since its founding in 1977, the group has consistently received rave reviews from critics for its innovative style and mastery. Originally formed with an emphasis on jazz dance under the oversight of founder Lou Conte, a choreographer and Broadway dancer, Hubbard Street took a broader approach to dance after former Nederlands Dans Theater artistic director Jim Vincent took the lead. The dance company expanded its range, drawing influence from overseas, partnering with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and cultivating more personality in their pieces through Inside/Out, a workshop which encourages dancers to choreograph their own pieces.

Their performance on Friday will feature a piece titled “There Was Nothing,” choreographed by Jon Boogz and Lil Buck, co-founders of choreography company “Movement Art Is,” in collaboration with dancer and choreographer Emma Porter. In an interview, Boogz describes his creative vision:

“It takes you on an emotional journey, and we start from the beginning: the creation of Earth. Then it goes from the creation of Earth, to Earth giving birth to man, to the final chapter, Mother Earth’s tormented relationship with humanity.”

“In the beginning of the piece, you get this appreciation of Earth, in all its wonders, in all its elements, and all the things as human beings we should appreciate about our planet. Then it goes into the chapter of relationship, and connection, and how man used to have a beautiful relationship with the planet, to then now in the final chapter, you get the disconnection: the industrialization, the buildings, the pollution, all the things negative that we’ve been doing to our planet that doesn’t serve us as human beings.”

The music of “There Was Nothing” was written by Dev Hynes, also known as Blood Orange, and will be performed live by Third Coast Percussion. Lil Buck described working with Third Coast Percussion as “some of the most amazing live performances I’ve ever seen in my life. The way they use instruments, the variety that they have from one instrument and how they can use that is incredible.”

third coast 2

The four members of Third Coast Percussion met in 2004 as percussionists studying at Northwestern University and as members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, a pre-professional orchestra organized by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. In the 15 years since then, they’ve risen to prominence as one of the leading percussion groups in the country, commissioning and debuting works from modern composers, performing live, and releasing five full-length albums and three EPs. Their album Third Coast Percussion | Steve Reich won the Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance in 2017, and received an enthusiastic commendation from Steve Reich himself, who called the project ““Sensational! Sometimes people ask if my music allows interpretation. I can’t think of a better answer than to play them [this album].”

Aside from both working out of Chicago, HSDC and Third Coast Percussion also bear other striking resemblances. Both groups have covered an extensive repertoire, ranging from the classical to the contemporary. Both have toured extensively across the country and across the world. And above all, both are committed to reaching out to their communities, and put an emphasis on education and accessibility for their art. Hubbard Street holds dance classes and workshops for all levels and ages, and offers a scholarship program for aspiring professional dancers. Third Coast Percussion has been the resident ensemble at the University of Notre Dame since 2013, and maintains a variety of outreach programs, including educational performances, lectures, and premiering the work of emerging composers. On Wednesday, February 6th, Third Coast Percussion will give a lecture in Lang Concert Hall on “The Science of Sound,” and on Thursday, HSDC will host a ballet master class and a dance workshop.

Assistant professor of dance Olivia Sabee says “it is really important to the educational mission of the College for students and community members to have access to experiences like these in conjunction with [Hubbard Street and Third Coast]’s performances, so I am excited for students to attend these workshops as well as the performance events.”

Third Coast Percussion’s time at Swarthmore will conclude with a performance of Terry Riley’s groundbreaking In C, a piece which arguably sparked the American minimalist music movement. Students, faculty and staff of the college, as well as area residents, will all come together to play in Lang Concert Hall alongside the members of the group.

Andrew Hauze ‘04, one of the coordinators of the project, describes how “Third Coast Percussion has an amazing list of educational and community programs that they offer, and we jumped at the chance to have a community play-in of Terry Riley’s seminal minimalist work In C. The construction of the work offers new opportunities for musicians from so many different musical backgrounds to perform together and to develop new ways of listening.”

In C, composed in 1964, consists of 53 phrases of music of varying length, without a specified instrumentation and only a loosely designated order. Beginning with a single rhythmic eighth note pattern on the note C, instruments gradually accumulate, forming a swell of polyphonic sound that can last anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour. As such, no two performances of In C are the same.

Hauze continues, “We are thrilled to have Third Coast Percussion on campus thanks to the funding of the Cooper Foundation. As a Department of Music and Dance, we are so excited that we are able to bring their collaborative work with Hubbard Street Dance to campus as a model of creative work between two leading companies in dance and music. I’m particularly looking forward to having students, faculty, staff, family members, and community members join together led by such an amazing quartet of musicians!”

Andy Zhang ’22
nathan anderson

Profile of Music Minor Nathan Anderson ’19

It is Swarthmore’s philosophy that the “ability to understand works of art — either through analysis or practice — is the key to a richer understanding of the human experience,” and Nathan Anderson ‘19 is one student who understands this fully. He has embraced art throughout his college experience and will graduate this semester with a major in Art History and a minor in Music, though he became involved with music as both an academic subject and recreational activity long before he was a Swarthmore student. He received formal music education from the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center (PMAC), which paved his path to pursue further musical interests. Anderson took piano lessons as early as five years old, learned how to play the saxophone in sixth grade, and joined his high school’s jazz band. By the time he entered Swarthmore, he knew he wanted to continue with his musical pursuits, joining the wind ensemble and jazz ensemble during his first year at Swarthmore.

Although music has always been a big part of Anderson’s life, Swarthmore still provided him with new and exciting experiences, particularly in its music theory courses and jazz ensemble ensemble. The music theory courses he took at Swarthmore delved much deeper and were much more “advanced than [his] high school’s,” and the ensemble introduced Anderson to “big band” music, which he had “no big exposure to” prior to Swarthmore. “I was used to playing a different type of music coming from jazz band in high school,” Anderson says, so his performances in the jazz ensembles at Swarthmore were always a unique and worthwhile experience. In fact, if it weren’t for his involvement with the ensembles at Swarthmore, Anderson says he “most likely would have to give [music] up,”  and he credits the college for giving him an “opportunity to continue playing [his] instruments.”

However, Anderson did not limit his musical interests to only be involved in the Music Program; he also was able to integrate his Music minor with his Art History major by placing much of his academic focus on medieval studies. His favorite experience was during the Fall semester of 2018 when he combined both his interests in music and art history and sung in the Early Music Ensemble, a student group formed by Anderson himself and Professor James Blasina. The ensemble, which was funded by the Fetter Chamber Music Program, performed vocal music from the sixteenth century, specifically madrigal pieces. Anderson admits that that performance was a little bit out of his “comfort zone, but it was still a fantastic experience.” By the end of the semester, Anderson was proud of what the group had to present.

Music has always been about fun for Anderson, so although he does not intend on continuing to study music professionally, he hopes to still play recreationally, perhaps “in a community group” of some sort. Balancing music as a hobby with a career can be challenging for some, but  Anderson feels that Swarthmore taught him well how to “keep [music] fun and not too serious,” a distinction that is very important to him and is sure to follow him after graduation.

Maria Consuelo de Dios ’21

New Professors, New Ideas in Music and Dance Department

The Swarthmore College Department of Music and Dance welcomes three new faculty members: Professor James J. Blasina, Professor Stephanie Liapis, and Professor Joe Small.

James Blasina profile_0

Professor Blasina is originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, and he has been interested in music since he was a child. His studies with his mentors, Professor Jennifer Bain and Jacqueline War at Dalhousie University, led him to a MA-PhD program at Harvard University, where he wrote his PhD dissertation on the way that music for St. Katherine of Alexandria modeled and mirrored changing conceptions of gender during the 12th and 13th centuries. “In many respects, I see this period as a point of origin for many of the gender systems that have held sway until the twentieth century,” Professor Blasina said. “I see music as an important primary source for illuminating these changes in the ways people were thinking about gender, and on the flip side, looking at music through this particular lens helps us understand [music] better.”

Professor Blasina came to know a Swarthmore alum during his time in graduate school. “I was always so impressed by her well-rounded and critical ways of thinking about problems, and by her confidence and willingness to voice her opinions,” Professor Blasina said. “I was so excited when a position was posted in the Music and Dance Department, and I am grateful to be able to contribute to the work of this community of scholars and students.”

Last semester, Professor Blasina taught Music 11, a music theory class that focuses on counterpoint, harmony, and musical form. This semester, he is teaching Music 28 (Sound, Sinners, and Saints in Medieval England), a course that considers what sorts of meanings human beings ascribe to sounds and music. He is also teaching Music 1a (1000 Years of Musical Firsts), which focuses on twelve significant musical premiere performances as important artistic and historical moments.

Professor Blasina hopes that his students will have two takeaways from his classes. “First of all, in a one-semester course, even on a very focused topic, it’s impossible to cover everything that you’d like to,” Professor Blasina said. Using an analogy from his PhD advisor, Thomas Forrest Kelly, Professor Blasina believes that the big ideas in music history courses are like a row of telephone poles. He and his students will build the “poles” together in the course. “They should be sturdy and will hopefully entice students to fill in the gaps between the poles with ‘wires’ throughout their lives,” Professor Blasina said.

The second takeaway is empathy. “It’s too easy to think of people in the distant past with simplifying and dehumanizing tropes,” Professor Blasina said. “But maybe through the classroom experience and by understanding their artistic expressions, we can come to appreciate and feel connected to the human beings—as human beings—who came before us, and by extension, better understand ourselves and our societies.”


Professor Liapis has had a professional career in the performing arts that spans over twenty years. She received a B.F.A. from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and an M.F.A. from the University of Washington. Professor Liapis’s choreographic research focuses on creating and presenting original, collaborative works that often weave in elements of digital sound and video to create a complete visual and sonic experience on stage .

Professor Liapis began teaching at Swarthmore College because she was drawn to the diverse dance curriculum offered at the college. “It feels relevant, exciting, and progressive to offer training and education in so many movement forms,” Professor Liapis said.

Currently Professor Liapis is teaching Modern dance technique, as well as yoga and dance composition. In these courses, Professor Liapis aims to provide students with opportunities for growth and creative freedom. “In my first semester, I am hoping to build trust with the students,” Professor Liapis said. “I want to provide a safe and exciting learning environment so that the studio becomes an active space for movement experimentation and exploration.”

“I have been very impressed with the students’ curiosity and willingness to try,” Professor Liapis continued. “The students at Swarthmore are so motivated and engaged which allows us to really explore our material, it’s origin, it’s path, it’s purpose.”

Currently, Professor Liapis is amidst a very exciting time in the dance program. “There is so much energy and momentum that will allow us to be more visible on the Swarthmore campus,” Professor Liapis said. “We are adding courses, developing curriculum, and offering new opportunities for students to work directly with professional choreographers!”

sm Joe Small Headshot (by i-Syu)

Professor Small was a student at Swarthmore College from 2001 to 2005, where he majored in dance and minored in theatre. His main interests are taiko drumming and its expansion in the choreographic context. Professor Small accredits Professor Kim Arrow, recently retired from the Dance Program, for sparking his interest in taiko drumming and helping him define an approach that values choreography as much as music. After graduating from Swarthmore, Professor Small travelled extensively (Tokyo, New York City, Los Angeles, Sydney), attended the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance in their MFA program, and freelanced workshops.

He decided to come back to Swarthmore to pursue the opportunity to give back to the college that got him started on his taiko career. Last semester, Professor Small taught Dance 49 (Taiko Repertory), and Dance 42 (Japanese Dance I). “In both courses, I definitely hope all students [came] away with a sense that taiko and Japanese dance are fun,” Professor Small said.

In Japanese Dance I, Professor Small hopes his students received an understanding of common fundamentals and aesthetics throughout forms of Japanese dance. For example, “One key point would be the sense of grounding in one’s center of gravity—the bent knee and the low waist, as opposed to certain forms of dance favoring a high center of gravity,” Professor Small said.

In Taiko Repertory, Professor Small worked with sixteen students to prepare for the Fall Dance Concert. They put together a performance arrangement featuring a bit of folk dancing and flute melody from Northern Japan, as well as a contemporary taiko piece called “Propel.” “For the Dance 49 (Taiko Repertory) class, we had a rehearsal where seemingly disparate parts of the taiko piece connected in a way that finally made both bodily and musical sense,” Professor Small said. “Seeing everyone’s faces light up in realization and excitement made me giddy.” This semester, Small is once again teaching Taiko Repertory, as well as Dance 12 (Dance Lab II).

David Chan ’19

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From Boulanger to Bernstein, College Chorus and Garnet Singers Celebrate Centennials

On Saturday, December 8th, at 3:00 pm in the Lang Concert Hall, the Swarthmore College Chorus and Garnet Singers, directed by Joseph Gregorio, will perform their fall concert. The Swarthmore College Chorus is a mixed ensemble comprised mostly of students, but is also open to faculty, staff, and community members. The Garnet Singers is a subset of the Chorus, composed of approximately twenty-four students, focused on works more intimate than those sung by the Chorus.

The Garnet Singers will be performing works in some way connected with the year 1918, and the Chorus will perform pieces by Leonard Bernstein. “1918 turns out to have been a significant year in music history as well as in world history,” Gregorio said.

Gregorio has always wanted to program Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms with the Chorus. Since it is the centenary of Bernstein’s birth, it seemed like the perfect timing to have such a program. In addition to Chichester Psalms, Gregorio chose to incorporate a few songs from West Side Story. “To represent Bernstein’s oeuvre more fully, I thought it would be nice to round out Chorus’s program with a few songs from West Side Story, which has some interesting musical connections toChichester Psalms,” Gregorio said.

Gregorio also notes that coincidentally, 1918 was the year of the death of three magnificent composers: Lili Boulanger, Claude Debussy, and Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. To further explore the theme and significance of 1918, the Garnet Singers will be performing a set that includes one work by each of these composers. Additionally, several other pieces will be included in the performance that have roots in the events of 1918.

This fall concert will also feature an original work by Lili Tobias ‘19. “The ensemble is especially excited to perform the premiere of Tobias’s piece, which Tobias wrote for us as a musical reflection on Lili Boulanger’s song ‘Reflets,’” Gregorio said.

Another student, Deondre Jordan ’19, will conduct the performance of Stephen Chatman’s In Flanders Fields.

Over the last five and a half years, the Chorus has doubled in size, presenting a continual challenge for Gregorio as well as the members of the group. Everyone must adapt to the current size of the group in order to continue making music at a high level. “Both ensembles, along with student pianist Mia Shoquist ’21, have worked tremendously hard to prepare for our December 8 concert,” Gregorio said. “The Garnet Singers have not only put in a great deal of musical work, but have also given generously of their psychological energy to bring to life music that is sometimes emotionally taxing to sing.”

“As ever, I am coming to the end of the semester with immense gratitude toward all of the musicians in our choral ensembles for all they have shared of themselves to make the concert a success,” Gregorio concluded.

David Chan ’19

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Gamelan and Chinese Music Ensemble Perform in Joint Concert

When asked what they hope students get out of participating in their respective music ensembles, Professors Lei Ouyang Bryant and Tom Whitman both make reference to communal music-making as a way to escape the numerous pressures experienced by a typical Swarthmore student.  “I think it is great for Swatties to play music for two to four hours a week amidst the rest of their busy schedules,” says Bryant, co-director of the Chinese Music Ensemble (CME).  Whitman, co-director of Gamelan Semara Santi (Gamelan), which plays music from Bali, Indonesia, puts it a bit more bluntly: “It is my hope that students find in Gamelan a place to rid themselves of the stress that is endemic at Swarthmore.”

Beyond just stress relief, though, Bryant and Whitman hope that their respective groups provide space for community members to either explore a different music culture or celebrate and recognize their own.  Whitman runs Gamelan rehearsals “Indonesian style—without any notation, and with minimal talking or analysis. I’d like our sessions to create a safe space where students can learn about Balinese culture by doing, rather than by reading or talking.”  For her part, Bryant sees the CME “as a valuable site on campus where Asian students, Asian American students, and students interested in Chinese culture can work together and find community with each other.”

Enthusiasm for such a community is evident in the fact that enrollment in CME has more than doubled in its first three semesters.  The ensemble is open to all, although most of this semester’s 25 members came in with some musical training. However, few had experience with traditional Chinese instruments such the guzheng (zither), erhu (bowed fiddle), pipa (plucked lute), yangqin (hammered dulcimer) or dizi (flute).  Bryant’s co-director Guowei Wang, a Shanghai-born erhu artist, arranges folk songs and more recent Chinese and Taiwanese compositions to tailor them to the specific skill levels and talents of the current crop of students.  Bryant describes the CME as “so fortunate to have [Wang] co-directing the ensemble and developing repertoire that everyone, from beginner to advanced, can play within one semester of study.”

Gamelan is also open to students—and Swarthmore community members—regardless of musical background, and is perhaps slightly more accessible to newbies due to the percussive nature of its instruments, which consist of mostly bronze-keyed xylophones, gongs, and drums.  But while hitting a gong might as a technical act be a bit easier than playing a fiddle, for example, the overall musical product is quite complicated, with each person playing an essential rhythmic role. Says senior Aly Ye, who has been a part of Gamelan for all of her four years at Swarthmore, “I love the complexity of the music and the challenge of learning it together, part by part, as an ensemble.”  The tightly interwoven percussive parts result in a soundscape that is, according to Whitman, a “beautiful texture of different layers.”

Another non-sound layer is sometimes added to the mix when Gamelan pieces are accompanied by dance.  Whitman explains that, “in Bali, dance and music are two facets of the same coin,” and that “while there are many pieces of instrumental music that do not accompany dance, all are informed by the spirit and many specific techniques from Balinese dance.”  This close relationship has been evident to Ye, who will dance and play in the upcoming show. She says that “because the dance is so closely tied to the music, I feel like I’ve gained deeper insight into why the music moves and changes in the way that it does…. there are many times when something is emphasized in the music that, when I’m learning the dance, suddenly make more sense.”  Whitman states that his lack of dance training is “one of my biggest weaknesses as a gamelan director. But we are extremely fortunate that our co-directors, I Nyoman Suadin and Latifah Alsegaf, come to campus. They bring to our ensemble that dimension of dance that I am not competent to teach.”

Audiences can come experience this auditory and visual feast in person on Sunday, December 2nd at 3pm, in the Chinese Music Ensemble and Gamelan Semara Santi’s combined end-of-semester concert.  The performance will be held in Lang Concert Hall and is free and open to the public. Families are welcome!

Lydia Roe ’20