Of the many stories of students completing final projects during quarantine, the story of a concert produced for Daniel Ott’s music composition class was perhaps one of the most challenging. One reason proved particularly vexing: silence.

As part of the biennial Fordham Composers Concert, students collaborate with professional musicians; this year the Exponential Ensemble provided expertise. Normally, students work on their compositions at Fordham College at Lincoln Center all semester and get to hear their music played live in May. But the pandemic forced students and musicians to coordinate from their homes across the globe, from New York to Paris to Australia.

When Ott, an associate professor in the Department of Art History and Music, gathered his students and the performers for a virtual concert, several remarked on the challenges one might least expect from playing music: the silent bits. Melodies and rhythms translated across digital distances, but silence proved more difficult. That’s because during a concert in a physical space, eye contact between musicians plays an important role during quiet pauses, something lost in virtual venues.

“There are moments in pieces where there is silence and the players look at each other and you just know, ‘I am breathing with you and we’ll just know when to start,’” said Anna Urrey, flutist with the ensemble. “For this concert, I tried to time out the silence, and I never got it right.”

Likewise, FCLC Senior Evan Donaldson appreciated the challenge.

“I could see where the tempo slows down to 20 seconds, that seems like something that would be extremely difficult to get right between three people on video, and it made me have a greater appreciation that the Exponential Ensemble took in order to sit down with sheet music and say, ‘I will do this as many times as I have to get it right,’” said Donaldson.

Pascal Archer, artistic director and clarinetist of Exponential Ensemble, said he would record his section of an audio file and send it on to oboist Kemp Jernigan. Jerigan would record atop Archer’s section and then send his cut to Anna Urrey to do the same.

“In concert, we would follow each other, and it’s easy to slow down and accelerate,” said Archer. In a concert, this would be done in a split second, but here it took a really long time.”

Although the students missed the live concert, they were left with a gift, said Donaldson.

“At the end of the day I’m grateful to have this perfectly made, plucked, tied-up-in-a-knot-and–bow audio file and video concert that I can show to people,” he said. “That’s really, really special.”


Tom Stoelker is senior staff writer and visual media coordinator for Fordham News. After fifteen years as a freelance designer, Tom shifted his focus to writing and photography. He graduated from Lehman College, CUNY where he majored in English literature and photography and he received his master's in journalism from Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and The Architect's Newspaper, where he was associate editor.