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Tsunami inspires new music

By : Rachel Coker

Timothy M. Rolls, a lecturer in the Music Department, collaborated on the orchestral composition 9.3, which commemorates the 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami.
The 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami sparked an unusual collaboration of Binghamton University faculty members. The interdisciplinary project will be realized with a lecture and concert next month.

Jeffrey Barker, associate professor of geological sciences and environmental studies, is president of the Binghamton Community Orchestra. The group decided to commission a piece that would commemorate the disaster and worked with Timothy Rolls, a lecturer in the Music Department.

The result? A new 11-minute orchestral composition titled 9.3. It will have its premiere during a March 5 concert and will be the subject of a poster presentation at the April meeting of the Seismological Society of America.

“The neat part of the collaboration is that I can tell people what happened that day,” Barker said. “Tim can communicate the feeling if you were in it.”

Rolls said the music is about hope and rebuilding as well as destruction. “Jeff really helped me understand what happened to the locals there,” he said. “The devastation was incredible.”

Rolls faced numerous challenges while working on the project. “How do you depict something like that accurately?” he asked. “Musically, you don’t have the climax of a piece at the very beginning.”

He settled on an introductory theme that returns piece by piece at the end. The two sections are bookends to a loud, crashing middle that portrays people and objects being swept away by the rushing water.

Rolls calls that part the “chord of destruction.” Barker said the musicians “all just play our heads off” in the middle.

“It’s a rather graphic piece,” Rolls said, “but I don’t think it’s vulgar in any way.”

Rolls hasn’t worked on many compositions designed to tell a story. And the orchestra has never before commissioned or premiered a new work.

Barker said 9.3 conveys a sense of anxiety. The roughly 50 amateur musicians in the orchestra truly feel the meaning of it, he said.

“I deliberately tried to make it sound as though the piece isn’t really finished,” Rolls said. “It’s meant to symbolize the ongoing rebuilding of a devastated society.”

Barker hopes his lecture and Rolls’ music will allow people to feel and understand the scope of the disaster in a new way.

The size of the fault that broke is the length and width of the state of California, Barker noted. The earth moved 60 feet in seconds. The tsunami was the result of the entire ocean being lifted up one story.

From shore, it would have looked like an “inexorably rising tide,” Barker said.

The earthquake and tsunami claimed the lives of 283,000 people, roughly the combined population of Broome and Tioga counties. A third of those killed were children.

“We seismologists tend to be very clinical about earthquakes,” Barker said. “This brings to me more of the human side that I wouldn’t have dealt with as a seismologist.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08