A musical postcard to MIT graduates

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On February 11, I got a call from MIT’s executive director of Institute events and protocol, Gayle Gallagher. President Reif had just announced that MIT would again be conducting commencement online—and to open the ceremony, we needed a compelling piece of music that would evoke renewal as we began to emerge from the pandemic. 

After nearly a year of socially distanced teaching, learning, and living, I envisioned music that not only reflected upon the losses and challenges we’ve faced but also embraced optimism about how we might come back from darkness as a better and more thoughtful society. Involving many music students and highlighting MIT’s iconic campus quickly became priorities. And the intimacy of the voice was a must.

But what was feasible, given MIT’s covid protocols? With few exceptions, students weren’t allowed to play or sing together in the same spaces. And who—on short notice—could craft a composition with such a specific intention, and for the unusual combined forces of orchestra, wind ensemble, jazz ensemble, Senegalese drumming ensemble, and multiple choirs? We needed a composer with the technical and professional chops to tackle such a daunting task—and the heart and humanity to understand why it was needed for this moment in time. 

I instantly knew that Tony Award–­winning alumnus Jamshied Sharifi ’83, with his long history of working with MIT students and his willingness to take on large-scale projects, was the only person for the job. Always in high demand—even during the pandemic—as an arranger, producer, and composer for Broadway, film, and artists in many genres, he agreed to do it at once. 

Because this project would involve singers, unlike the instrumental collaborations we’d done over the years, we knew we had to find an appropriate text. At Gayle’s suggestion, I contacted MIT poet Erica Funkhouser, who compiled some of her students’ recent poems about the pandemic. And once Jamshied read them, his vision became clear. “The emotional openness, simplicity, and, at times, aching sadness of their writing was my guiding light,” he says, “and informed all compositional decisions.” 

From inbox to realization

Though I’ve coordinated other complex, large-scale concerts, this project was uncharted territory. It involved organizing recording sessions for five ensembles, accommodating students not on campus, rehearsing in person and online, and structuring a 10-hour film shoot in five locations on campus. The logistical challenges were mind-boggling—we even had to get a massive crane on the sidewalk outside of 77 Mass. Ave. moved.

On May 3—a month and a day before the commencement-day premiere—Jamshied’s score and midi file for Diary of a Pandemic Year arrived in my inbox. I knew well what he was capable of, but what he’d sent brought me to tears. The flow, the tone, his handling of the text, and the way he shaped this five-and-a-half-minute sonic journey from dark to light—all of it was just perfect. Because he wanted vocalists to hear their parts with real voices, he had also taken on the arduous task of recording all of them for the audio file himself. 

My colleagues and I were off and running to bring the piece to life. Multimedia specialist Luis “Cuco” Daglio—who helped keep Music and Theater Arts musical performances going for 15 straight months—again donned his superhero cape, recording seven separate sessions for groups of MIT musicians. 

So how did the final virtual performance come together? First, all the instrumentalists and vocalists recorded themselves playing or singing to Jamshied’s midi file. Jamshied then mixed and mastered all these tracks—well over 200 of them—until Diary of a Pandemic Year was transformed into a living, breathing piece of music.

“Reading the MIT poets’ selected lines, I began to get a sense of the impact of the pandemic on young people—its larger significance given their fewer years on the planet, its limiting force on a time that should for them be exploratory.” 

—Jamshied Sharifi ’83

During the epic filming day—overseen by Clayton Hainsworth, director of MIT Video Productions (MVP)—the original file was amplified through speakers for all players and singers to perform to live. Even with the restriction of having to play or sing to the midi track, it still felt revelatory. Emmy Award–winning MVP producer and editor Jean Dunoyer ’87 led the video team, which beautifully captured the emotional scope of the composition and the expressiveness of the students’ performance.

“At the end of a long year and a half of meeting to make music over Zoom and in separate practice rooms, filming the music video gave us a chance to perform together in person in a very meaningful way,” says MIT Wind Ensemble saxophonist Rachel Morgan, a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “It meant so much to see what MIT music can do!”

While Jamshied was working his audio-mixing magic, Jean, whom I consider the other magician of the project, was creatively translating the score to film. “I wanted the piece to be an invitation to the community to return to campus, unmasked and in person,” he explains. “The joy of togetherness was the thing that was most missed by our students over the past months, and when the signal arrived that the vaccine was working, the yearning to gather once again was palpable.”

Powerful messages for the future

The work everyone took on to realize Diary of a Pandemic Year was emblematic of the central role music, and the arts in general, play in the lives of so many MIT students. It testified to how determined students, faculty, and staff had been to ensure the continuation of music performance under very trying circumstances since the start of the pandemic. 

As Erica put it, “Diary of a Pandemic Year felt like a musical postcard to the graduates from The World, even though it could only have been created at MIT.” 

Days before the premiere, Jamshied reflected upon the universality of the piece and its central message. “Reading the MIT poets’ selected lines, and the longer poems from which they were drawn, I began to get a sense of the impact of the pandemic on young people—its larger significance given their fewer years on the planet, its limiting force on a time that should for them be exploratory and expansive, and its uncomfortable place in a matrix of unfolding calamities brought on primarily by human inattention and hubris,” he wrote. “The current moment feels hopeful; the birds sing of new life. But I sense in the pandemic a warning, and an unsubtle suggestion that we should not ‘return to normal,’ but seek an evolved, equitable, and holistic way of structuring our world. Our young people know this in their bones. We should listen.” 

Frederick Harris Jr. of the Music and Theater Arts faculty is music director of the MIT Wind Ensemble and the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble.