Community School Composer Apsara Kasiraman rose to the challenge of creating art out of the time of the pandemic with her composition “Requiem for Four Horns.”
Community School composer Apsara Kasiraman rose to the challenge of creating art out of the time of the pandemic with her composition “Requiem for Four Horns.” For the project Requiem-20: A Musical Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Musical Mentors Collaborative asked Apsara and 10 other young composers to write a piece of music that expressed how the COVID-19 pandemic made them feel. The Community School sat down (virtually) with Apsara and explored her ideas and thoughts regarding this haunting piece of music.
This interview has been edited for style, content, and clarity.
You wrote this composition, “Requiem for Four Horns,” at the invitation of Musical Mentors Collaborative. They asked young people across our country to express themselves artistically in the face of crisis. How did you first respond when they asked you to write a piece for this project?
I was incredibly excited and grateful. The arts have definitely been impacted by the pandemic, so I am very thankful to have been given the opportunity to write music and get it played.
What was your process like for creating this piece? How long did it take you to write it?
I wrote this piece in about two weeks. It initially started out as a solo horn piece, but a few days into the process, I realized my vision would be better captured using four horns rather than one. Once I finished writing the piece, I sent it to the horn player, Eric Huckins, who then recorded it and sent it back to me. Once I received the recording, I put together the visuals and sent the final version to the Musical Mentors Collaborative.
As this has been a very trying time for the world economically, physically, and mentally, a composition about the time of COVID-19 could be very bleak. However, your piece has these bright moments of consonance and sweetness. Tell us about the mood you were trying to capture. And how did you accomplish that musically?
I wanted to capture both the good and the bad elements that have come out of the pandemic. This has been such a tragic time for so many people, but I also think it has made people realize the value and importance of spending time with others, so I wanted to capture both sides. On one hand, so many people have lost grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles… but on the other hand, we have learned to adapt to the situation so we can still carry out our lives in a somewhat normal way.
The French Horn is such a beautiful instrument. Why did you choose that as the medium of your composition?
Because I love writing for horn. Typically, the horn is known for its volume, power, and robustness, like what is in many orchestral works, but it has lyrical qualities as well. The Musical Mentors Collaborative did not have any specific guidelines for instrumentation, so I figured I would write for an instrument that I love and is capable of capturing the right mood.
Is “Requiem for Four Horns” a break from your usual composition style or does it contain any of your signature compositional elements?
I think this piece definitely has elements of my style, but there are several differences. I stuck to relatively traditional harmonic structures, as I normally do, but I also had fewer moving parts, which isn’t typical for me. I used simpler rhythms and less drastic transitions.
The music combined with the black and white photos created a reverent and stirring emotional quality. Tell us about the photos. Did you choose them? How were they selected?
I googled “coronavirus impact photos” and found slideshows from various media outlets. I chose the pictures that were the most representative of the pandemic and best suited for my music. I intentionally chose pictures from all over the world because, although each person’s situation is unique, the pandemic is something that has affected all of us. The pictures were all originally in color, but I chose to make the video black and white because I feel that they are more expressive than color pictures.
Why did you choose to make this composition a requiem?
I made this piece a requiem because I wanted to commemorate the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people we have lost to COVID-19. I didn’t write the piece with the intention of creating a requiem, but after its completion, “Requiem for Four Horns” just seemed to be the perfect title.
You utilize straightforward rhythms, open fifths, a powerful crescendo in the middle, and a melancholic melody. Your piece is clearly telling a story. What story is that?
I wanted to show both the stillness and motion associated with the pandemic. The pandemic has been ongoing for many months now, but time hasn’t stood still. There’s also this sense of detachment for many people–and harsh reality for others–hence the straight-forward rhythms and open fifths. The melody is meant to capture grief, pain, and despondency. Finally, the dynamics and overall ABA structure is representative of highs and lows within the pandemic. While there have been a lot of negative things, people have also found new ways to improvise, adapt, and overcome.
Any new composition projects we can look forward to from you?
I just finished a piece for Met Opera singer Zachary James’ album Call Out, which will be available on iTunes, Spotify, etc. in December. The piece is called “To a Star,” and is based on Lucretia Maria Davidson’s poem of the same name.
Apsara, we think you are immensely talented and have a great future ahead of you! What are your plans for after high school? Will you pursue composition?
I am still exploring all my options. Although I love music, I have academic interests as well. But if I do go into music, I want to major in either composition, piano performance, or orchestral conducting.
Thank you for this Q&A! Before we wrap up our interview, anything else you would like to mention?
Thank you for letting me share my piece. I am especially grateful to the Colburn faculty, staff, and community for supporting me in all my endeavors for the past ten years. Colburn has truly been a major part of my life, and it has meant even more to me in this pandemic. I can’t wait to be on campus again!
Listen to “Requiem for Four Horns"