Music and nature meet in Colloquium grant composition

by Jennifer Johnson,

Michael Chergosky ’19 transforms bull kelp into a horn section.

For visitors to the Oregon coast, tangled piles of seaweed washed up on the beach are a common sight.

But when Michael Chergosky ’19 spotted a heap of bull kelp, it inspired an unusual thought: That could make a really cool musical instrument.

Chergosky, a music major who enjoys transforming unlikely and unorthodox objects into instruments, has previously incorporated PVC pipes and chain link fences into his compositions. So, he took home the kelp — named after the bullwhip because of its long, hollow body, ribbon-like blades and bulbous end — and dried and shaped it into curvy musical horns for his ensemble piece, “Undertow.”

He was able to develop the idea through a College Colloquium Research Grant, which provides first-year students up to $3,500 for a feasible research project tied to their colloquium course. Other grant winners this year explored topics that ranged from medieval sexuality and church architecture in Spain to the injustices Japanese-Americans experienced at internment camps during World War II.

Nontraditional approach to music

For his composition, Chergosky adopted a method used by American avant garde composer John Cage, who tossed coins to determine the pitch, duration and dynamic of a work. Chergosky says this chance approach was intended to remove Cage from the process of composition, “like a denial of the self.”

Using a similar process, Chergosky created an austere, nearly 7-minute piece for four players that alternates between silence and the sound of the kelp horn, either alone or as a chord. The sound presents itself in various ways: as a buzzy, mid-level pitch; the deep, primitive tone of a Tibetan long horn; or a waning trumpet.

Musicians found the kelp horn much harder to play than a brass instrument. One performer, TJ Rutter ’19, said the narrow tube tightly restricted air flow, and playing it “felt more or less like blowing into a completely blocked tube.” The mouthpieces also tasted very salty — like the raisins in trail mix combined with a hint of sushi.

Chergosky says the instruments were surprisingly musical.

“Each piece of kelp happens to be in the same key, so they’re able to play a full chord,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting that at all.”

Chergosky also incorporated piano into the work. By pressing down the sustain pedal, which causes the corresponding strings to vibrate in harmony, he added “a little shimmer” of sound to the performance.

John Peel, composer-in-residence at Willamette, says that some listeners find “Undertow” amusing, “a little bit flatulent-sounding.” Yet he says Chergosky’s work defies the commoditization of sound into genres that confine the capability of music.

Peel says Chergosky follows other iconoclastic composers who sought to blend music with the surrounding environment. In the early 1900s, French-born composer Edgard Varese wrote “Ameriques,” a collection of disjointed, disarrayed sounds inspired by what he’d heard living on a busy street in Manhattan.

“The whole idea with some of these experimenters is to reexamine whether music can only take place in a concert hall — where we’re all in this religious fervor as we listen to Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and we applaud and go home,” says Peel. “Or is music much more egalitarian? It’s the concept that music is everywhere and doesn’t have to be this kind of formal discipline where everything is behaving according to what we accept.”

A smelly process

Chergosky’s grant project challenged not only his intellect, but his sense of smell, too.

He traveled to Lincoln City a few times to collect several pounds of kelp. As he lugged enormous plastic bags full of kelp back to his car, he felt like a bizarre Santa Claus roaming the city streets.

Back at his off-campus apartment, Chergosky had to clean his haul. Lacking a bathtub, he stood in the shower to wash off the slime and sand grit. Then he cut off the tube ends to create the mouthpiece and “bell” for the horn.

A few kelp pieces were on the verge of rotting, so he set a fan on them, filling his apartment with the smell of dead fish for days. He later hung the semi-dried kelp tubes in his closet.

“When I started writing music,” he says, “I didn’t think it would go like this.”

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