Grace Coberly ’21 and Margin Zheng ’23 Make Their Own Music

The two Haverford music students developed their music composition skills this summer at Philly’s Young Women Composers Camp.

Before Margin Zheng ‘23 came to Haverford in 2019, they were signed up for a music camp at Temple University. When they were unable to attend, Zheng thought they had missed the opportunity altogether. Last spring, however, they received an exciting email: the program was going virtual, and it was welcoming college students. 

That program is Young Women Composers Camp. It is designed to further the music composition skills of young women and nonbinary people, usually of high school age, with the guidance and instruction of experienced working composers and musicians. This summer, Zheng and Grace Coberly ‘21 were able to participate because of the camp’s move to a virtual format due to COVID-19. 

“The experience was definitely a silver lining of the pandemic for me,” Coberly said. “In fact, it almost seemed to work better remotely than it would have in-person, due to the flexibility of the remote structure.” 

Each participant in YWCC left the program with an original composition in hand, which they crafted over the course of the two-week program with the guidance of a private instructor. 

Coberly, a music and linguistics double major developed their debut percussion piece, “earthworms, following heavy rain,” with the help of virtual one-on-one sessions with their professional percussion collaborator, who was working from her studio in New York. 

“Solo percussion is fascinating to write for because it’s simultaneously infinite and extremely limiting,” said Coberly, who is accustomed to composing at a keyboard. “A percussionist can play anything — a drum, a plastic tube, a hand saw wrapped in tinfoil, a handful of dry rice — so long as it’s physically possible for the performer.” 

“earthworms, following heavy rain,” mirrors that infinite possibility. The piece is written for flowerpots and bowed vibraphone, and was born of Coberly lining up glass bowls on their bedroom floor and hitting them with spatulas. 

“My music chronicles that process, in which earthworms, never in danger of drowning, use the dampness of just-rained-on earth to migrate and explore new ground” after a storm, said Coberly. 

For Zheng, who is a prospective music and mathematics double major, working remotely centered their work on electronics, which ended up becoming a significant component of their final composition, “when pneum is named.” 

“I don’t think I would have pursued a composition with so many electronic and multisensory elements if the program were in-person,” they said. “It was precisely the stipulation of online performance by a single performer that ended up generating numerous serendipitous possibilities. To an artist of any sort, restrictions are only an excuse for more creativity.” 

Zheng composed their piece with instructor inti figgis-vizueta, who is known known for granting substantial musical liberties to the performer in her compositions. Zheng was inspired by figgis-vizueta’s unconventionality, deciding to stray from the usual five-line staff of most musical scores. 

“My piece is wildly experimental, involving solo bassoon, sampled audio edited in Ableton Live, and a video that pans through a colorful graphic with overlaid symbols and poetic text that serves as an non-traditional ‘score,’” Zheng said. This visual score is taken from one that Zheng originally scribbled on a piece of cardstock at the last minute during a student workshare. 

Their piece is one that gives almost complete creative freedom to the bassoonist, dissolving the hierarchy between the composer and the performer. Besides a single melody from a Chinese folk tune, Zheng dictates no notes in their piece. The video and audio inspire the performance and offer a guide, but the score does not draw boundaries for the performer.

“There is risk in giving so much creative liberty to the performer, especially for a composition that is so fundamentally rooted in personal and cultural context,” they said.

 Zheng’s Han Chinese heritage and experience of being nonbinary inspired their exploration of dualities through bassoon in their composition. 

“But [bassoonist] Rebekah [Heller] was absolutely amazing to work with, and even without my having explained the context of the piece or the semantics of the visual and sonic symbols I used, she was sensitive to the deeper, archetypal meanings in my work and drew them out in what was truly a stunning performance.” 

In creating “when pneum is named,” Zheng discovered the essential values of trust and partnership in the art of composition. 

“No one ever said, you can’t do this or you shouldn’t do that, and when I felt lost and doubted myself, inti as well as other people helped me to persist through the difficulties and to trust my creative instincts even when my ideas seemed to be going nowhere,” they said.  

For Zheng, not only was collaboration important to the composition process, it was also one of the best features of the program as a whole. The communication and discussion that occurred during each day was something that brought everyone close. 

“I loved learning from and getting to know composers of various ages who brought a lot of different perspectives and passions to musical creation,” they said. “We were not just musicians in the program — we were humans telling our personal stories and reflecting on and responding to the world we live in.”

Both students expressed their excitement about the community that was formed during the experience. Something that was notable to both Zheng and Coberly was the experience of feeling comfortable and welcome in the group as nonbinary members of YWCC. 

“While I did occasionally raise questions about language use in camp spaces and how it could be more inclusive, my feedback was always taken extremely seriously by campers and instructors alike,” Coberly said. “And even as a clear gender minority in the camp, I met more nonbinary musicians in those two weeks than I had ever encountered in the wild. That sense of community and representation made me love the program even more.”

Several members of the camp, both student-to-student and instructor-to-student, have kept in touch with one another and continue to communicate even now.

“Without a doubt, the friends I made were the best part of the program,” Coberly said. “I’m still loosely in touch with the entire camp, but I’m closest with a few composers based in Ontario, London, and Australia. I got to know Margin a lot better, too! We all supported each other’s work during the camp, and we’ve continued to cheer each other on since then.” 

Coberly and Zheng both expressed that YWCC taught them skills that focused not only on technical and hard skills, but on intangible parts of the composition process that one can only obtain by experience and with the right coaching.

“I learned how a vibraphone motor works,” said Coberly. “I learned how to hide a staff on Sibelius… More importantly, though, I learned how to let my guard down and take risks in my music without worrying about the consequences. YWCC gave me the greatest gift I could’ve asked for; it made me feel legitimate. It taught me that my music is good and valuable and worth creating, and that I should keep creating.”