On Friday and Saturday, April 15–16, the Mead hosts Arts à la Carte, an event showcasing music, dance, and art in the museum’s galleries and adjacent Stearns Steeple. One of the event organizers and contributors is Amherst alum Dylan Schneider ’06. After completing a dual major in music and English at Amherst, Schneider went on to receive a PhD in music composition at the University of Chicago. He has held teaching positions at the University of Chicago and Smith College, and currently serves as coordinator for the Arts at Amherst Initiative.
Schneider has emerged as a distinctive voice among today’s generation of composers. His music, often praised for its innovative structure and dramatic flair, has drawn an international audience and has been performed by Grammy Award–winning ensembles such as Eighth Blackbird, the Pacifica String Quartet, and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. As the composer of two operas, with a third on the way, Schneider pioneers a new frontier in performance, traversing the diversity of human experience with a sense of lyricism and play.
We recently met with Schneider to talk about Arts à la Carte, and in the meantime learned more about the acoustics at the Mead, his fondness for nocturnes, and his favorite time of day.
The program opens with your composition called Nocturne & Wake-Up Call, which is described as “a fantasy exploring night, sleep, and waking up.” I can’t help wondering: Are you a morning person or a night person? I’m a morning person. But I did go to graduate school, so I am no stranger to the company of late evenings as well. The stillness of night can certainly be conducive to creative work.
When did you write the piece and what inspired it? I composed Nocturne & Wake-Up Call during my time in graduate school. I’ve always had a particular fondness for the musical genre known as “night music,” particularly the nocturnes of Chopin and Satie. In writing my own nocturne, however, I decided I needed to write a piece not only about night, and the experience of sleep and dreams, but about waking up, too—hence the title.
Several of the performances on the Arts à la Carte program are “premieres.” Did the dancers and musicians create new works just for this event? Most pieces on the program are indeed new works, some being heard and seen for the very first time—in history!—on April 15. It is an unparalleled sensation for an audience to experience the “bringing-to-life” of a completely new work of art. I think this is a particularly thrilling aspect of our performance at the Mead.
Is there generally a higher degree of anxiety the first time a work is performed? Not at all. When collaborating with performers of the caliber appearing on this program, you can be certain you are in for a good show. Indeed, for me, it is perhaps the greatest joy in life to hear my music played with such vivid expression and detail.
You graduated from Amherst in 2006, majoring in English and music. Did you perform at the Mead when you were a student here? In 2005, I was invited to give a talk at the Mead in conjunction with an exhibition of French artwork of the early nineteenth century [The Empress Josephine: Art and Royal Identity]. The talk explored musical works commissioned at the hand of Joséphine de Beauharnais, the empress of the French Republic. The salon music of Joséphine’s court offers a glimpse into the private aesthetics of French imperial culture of the Napoleonic era. The discussion concluded with a concert of works of the period, performed on historical instruments.
What makes the museum a good setting for music and dance? The size, shape, and style of the Mead’s Rotherwas Room in particular make it an ideal setting for chamber music—both acoustically and aesthetically. These same features were no doubt cherished by musicians and noble guests alike some four centuries ago, in the room’s original home in England.
More generally, however, the concept of transforming the museum’s collection into a striking backdrop for music and dance truly embodies the spirit of the Arts at Amherst Initiative, which strives to create connections and collaborations among our various artistic disciplines on campus.
As arts coordinator on campus you run the college’s Bailey Brown House on Hitchcock Road, where visiting artists stay, short or long term. What has that experience been like this year? It’s been great! This year, Arts at Amherst has hosted an impressive roster of guest artists—choreographers, visual artists, musicians, curators—many at the forefront of their fields. These residencies have become a powerful way to connect the Amherst campus with the vibrant world of the arts.
For the complete Arts à la Carte schedule, visit the event website. All events are free and open to the public.
—Interview by Sheila Flaherty-Jones