Makena Williams’ Senior Recital in Composition

Williams playing "Song for Angela," with Angela's brother Nico Domingo. Photo Courtesy of Lily Damron.

The hallway leading to the reception room was packed full of people buzzing about the performance after fourth year composition major Makena Williams’ senior recital. Much of the music department had been involved in the performance and many of Williams’ friends and family had attended. Williams, smiling and holding an armful of bouquets, squished into a picture with a dozen of her friends. 

The recital began with a piece for strings played by the school Chamber Orchestra, inspired by the big sound of a traditional Chinese orchestra. The program moved through nine diverse ensembles, which grew smaller and smaller and ended with an intimate piece where the composer sang and accompanied herself on guitar.

“I thought it was kind of fun to end small instead of ending big, kind of the opposite of what people expect,” Williams said. 

That quiet conclusion was the result of months of hard work, and the culmination of four years of music and composition classes. In the months leading up to the recital, Williams spent hours editing music and preparing parts, recruiting ensembles, rehearsing and putting together a program. She also had to find student conductors to lead her pieces and trust them to bring the music to life.

“I’m feeling very relieved that it’s done,” said Williams, “but I’m kind of sad that it’s over, because it was a really special experience…. But I’m proud of it, it went well and the hard work paid off.”

Victor Labenske, a professor of music at PLNU and Williams’ composition teacher, praised her organization leading up to the recital. He also explained the different skills composition majors have to learn to prepare for such a big project, such as the ability to create parts for different instruments and create strong melodies and melodic structures. They take classes for specialized instrument groups so they know how to write music for each type.

Williams’ recital featured parts for string instruments, woodwinds, piano, guitar, percussion and even accordion, which she included in a piece called “Aboard the Ladies Ship,” inspired by eighteenth century female pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Read. The piece is what Labenske described as ‘programmatic’ music, taking inspiration from an outside story and telling it through music. According to the recital program, Williams used details like the pirates’ names and the sensation of a swaying ship to inform her composition.

In addition to the historical research, Williams drew inspiration from different musical modes, composers and scenes for her pieces. Part of the composition major involves learning to write for different ensembles and sounds. For example, in “The Peculiar Pathway,” she used the whole tone scale and drew inspiration from video game music and composer Danny Elfman to create a mysterious feeling. In “kinda lydian,” which won an award for composition, she created a piano duet influenced by Debussy and the minimalist compositions of Phillip Glass. 

Williams said she was also inspired by the music of different cultures, like Hawaiian guitarist Keola Beemer, which showed in sweet chord progressions of “Kalani.” Another piece, “La Lucha,” came about as Williams learned Malegueña guitar pieces from Spain.

“I get obsessed with random music from around the world,” said Williams. “Traditional Indian music, or Chinese music, once I went on a Middle Eastern music thing. So at that point I was listening to a lot of Spanish and Middle Eastern stuff.”

All of that came together for what Labenske called “a really remarkable performance.” The day of, Williams said she was worried about the performance going by too fast, but she was able to be in the moment and watch her songs from backstage. She was moved by the number of friends and family that came out to support her, and by the support of her peers in the music department who helped make the recital possible.

“It’s kind of weird to be done with it… it’s kind of like how in high school or in college you look forward to graduation and think: ‘That’s so far from now, I’m going to be so much bigger and cooler by then, it’s the climax.’ And then you get there and you’re like: ‘Oh, this is cool, but I still have so much more coming.’”

In addition to upcoming events in the Music Department, there are two student recitals in March and April: Sylvia Strickland’s senior recital on March 24 at 7:30 p.m., and Adam Nenn and Caleb Marroquin’s junior recital on April 4 at 7:20 p.m..

Written By: Lily Damron