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By Eric Weld   Date: 12/13/10 Bookmark and Share

Senior Tunes in to Different Ways of Considering Music

Imagine if, a few centuries ago, when Western music scales were being forged into their modern, tempered patterns, women, instead of men, were calibrating the tones and intervals that would combine to become the basis of most music we hear today.

Jillian Flexner ’11 doing what she loves: analyzing music scores.

What would music be like? What impact would the difference make on society, the arts, human relations?

If, as some theories suggest, music was originally derived from speech and vocal patterns, then musical structures invented by women would presumably be much different from those created by men.

It’s a subject that intrigues the academic curiosity of Jillian Flexner ’12, a music major focusing on music theory, composition and what she calls feminist music.

“I can’t think of any field that’s been more male-dominated than music,” said Flexner recently. “Men chose our modern scales. What would music be like if women chose those scales?”

With that in mind, Flexner recently analyzed women’s speech patterns to form the basis of available tones for a piece she composed, for vocal soprano with string quartet, using the text of a poem, Who, by Sylvia Plath (Smith Class of 1955). Flexner will perform the piece as part of her senior recital program on April 30, 2011.

A difficult analysis—a work for soprano, musical saw, harp and electric piano by contemporary composer George Crumb.

Flexner, who plays the bassoon, became interested in music theory and, as she says, alternative ways of looking at music, when she took a theory class in her final year of high school. She entered Smith planning to study chemistry, but changed her mind, settling on a music major, after taking a first-year composition seminar with Eric Wubbels at Amherst College. She has studied mostly with Smith composers Donald Wheelock, professor emeritus of music, and Raphael Atlas, professor of music.

Flexner’s preferences tend toward the composers of the Second Viennese School, a movement led by the iconic modernist Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), who blazed new musical paths with his atonal and 12-tone structures that minimized the tonal centers of conventional music.

“I’m absolutely obsessed with that man,” she says of Schoenberg, an interest that deepened when she spent her Junior Year Abroad last year in Vienna. “But I really like all music. I try to find something I like in everything I listen to. If you look more into the theory of music, you see the connections between all forms.”

Flexner plans to pursue music theory into graduate school and beyond, possibly teaching eventually. Music, after all, she explains, is among the most ancient and universal forms of art.

“A lot of people don’t like music theory,” she says, “but for me that’s the interesting part of music: looking at an entire piece to see how it fits together—asking, ‘what does that choice contribute to what the composer’s trying to say?’ When you look closely, you learn about things you wouldn’t otherwise notice.”

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