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Spotlight: Senior distinction projects

Spring is here, and while students may be dreaming of summer plans, many seniors are still completing and defending their senior distinction projects. Here’s Recess’s spotlight on two interesting projects seniors have created in the arts this year:

Mike DeVito: Having loved jazz for a long time, DeVito chose to write for a jazz quintet in the new jazz genre. DeVito was inspired by jazz and funk, which he said is what made him get into music in the first place.

“Funk is almost an oral traditional of learning how to play, a feel-oriented way of playing,” DeVito said.

DeVito combined the music he liked to play with the formal training he received at Duke to write four pieces: one ballad and three upbeat pieces.

The songs were inspired by the music of the band Snarky Puppy, who use an orchestrated format to play their pieces in which band members interact with each other during the performance. Whereas in classic jazz the band plays the melody and leaves a solo for each member, this style has more harmonic changes.

As part of the project, DeVito will record his pieces through Small Town Records, where he has previously recorded songs as a part of the funk rock quartet Mobius. 

DeVito will play bass for the set and will be assisted by four other students playing drums, guitar, the keyboard and the saxophone. He said does not know of anyone else having pursued a distinction in more contemporary forms of music, particularly in jazz, during the time he has been at Duke.

“If I manage to pull it off, it’ll be something that I’ve never seen anyone do at Duke and something that I’ve never really heard of people being able to do,” DeVito said.

Madison Spahn: Spahn came up with her project last summer in Germany while participating in a voice program where she sang “Frauenliebe und -Leben.” The song cycle is composed in a series of vignettes about the life of a young woman as she grows up. After noticing the discomfort that many of her fellow colleagues had with the themes of the song cycle, which perpetuated many stereotypes about women, Spahn chose to take a critical look at the piece for her senior distinction.

In addition to writing a paper about “Frauenliebe und -Leben,” Spahn also composed a song cycle of her own with similar themes. Since “Frauenliebe und -Leben” was written by a man, Spahn chose to base her song cycle on a series of poems by modern female poets, including Maya Angelou and Erica Jong. Each poem centers around some kind of female experience, such as love or motherhood. 

In pursuing a senior distinction in the arts, Spahn found she had more freedom to explore different mediums. Instead of just handing in a standard paper, Spahn was able to create her own music and collaborate with a variety of different teachers to compose her piece.

“You can really explore a topic from different angles when you’re allowed to use different media that way,” Spahn said. “It’s much less interesting to just write about a song cycle than to perform it and explore it in other ways.”

Spahn will perform her pieces at a recital this Saturday at 5 p.m. in Nelson Music Room.


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