Art Notes: Norwich teacher composes a night of little music

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-13-2023 11:07 AM

Travis Ramsey’s two kids were still small when they inspired him to start writing a string quartet about childhood back in 2017.

Ramsey, who teaches music at Marion Cross School, also had just read a book about Wagnerian childhood that guided his thinking.

“I think all those things sort of happened at the same time, and then you sort of recognize the links between them,” Ramsey, 43, said in an interview in the Marion Cross music room.

The resulting quartet has taken a winding path from its composition through the pandemic to its first performance. The Odin Quartet will perform Ramsey’s String Quartet No. 1: The Importance of Being Little at 7:30 p.m., March 15, in Toronto. The performance, which features works by Canadian and American composers, will be livestreamed.

Few composers seem as well-suited as Ramsey, 43, to produce a work about the inner lives of children. In addition to teaching music, he also teaches his pupils how to compose music.

“I think that’s how we learn best is when we get to build with it,” Ramsey said.

While the inspiration came from his own experience as a parent (his daughter and son are now ages 11 and 8), he also drew on The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grownups, a 2016 book by Erika Christakis. He didn’t know it while he was reading it, but Christakis lives in Norwich.

Like Christakis’ book, Ramsey’s string quartet celebrates the value of play in a young child’s life.

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“We’re underestimating kids in terms of their enormous capacity to be thoughtful and reflective and, I would argue, that’s because we’re not giving them enough time to play and to be in relationships with others,” Christakis told NPR when her book came out.

The quartet’s five movements, 25 minutes long, trace activities familiar to the dreamtime of childhood, starting with Story-time and moving through Ball, Day-dream and Chase to Bed-time. The movements are meant to capture the mystery, energy and moments of peace in a child’s life.

Being Little was close to completion and performance before the start of the pandemic. Ramsey composes in what little free time is left him after work and parenting. He often starts a piece, then looks for an ensemble or institution that might commission him to complete it.

He received such a commission from the Sterling Quartet and completed the piece. But the pandemic intervened, and one member of the quartet moved away and another retired, Ramsey said. He was unsure whether it would be performed.

“It became clear that despite everyone’s best intentions, that wasn’t going to happen,” Ramsey said.

During the pandemic, Ramsey started a writing group for composers. A fellow composer suggested he look up the Odin Quartet.

“I just found their website and reached out to them,” he said. In January, they told him they’d like to perform his quartet.

Prior to the pandemic, Being Little was the biggest project Ramsey was working on. Having it performed feels like an ice-breaker.

“There is a sense with this composition that we get to come back and do something that we couldn’t do,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey, who grew up in Hartland and now lives in Etna, said he teaches music composition to elementary school pupils partly because “I thought of what I wished I had been able to do when I was in school,” he said.

He did try his hand at composing when he was in elementary school and at Hanover High School but didn’t really focus on it until his post-secondary education, at the University of Southern Maine and Boston University. Younger students learn the mechanics of composition, then learn they’re supposed to use them as a mode of expression.

“I think the biggest thing kids get out of trying composition is to understand that it’s something they could do, that it’s a possibility for them,” Ramsey said.

The Odin Quartet will perform at 7:30 p.m. March 15 at the Canadian Music Centre in Toronto. For information about the concert, which has a livestreaming option, go to cmccanada.org or to odinquartet.com.

Work and play

Northern Stage opens a production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2017 drama Sweat with preview shows Wednesday through Friday this week before an official opening night on Saturday.

Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, is set in a factory in Pennsylvania. It’s among a small cohort of plays, and of the performing arts in general, that focus on the experiences of working-class Americans.

Admission to Thursday’s show is pay-what-you-can. Beyond that, ticket prices range from $19 to $69. For tickets and information, go to northernstage.org or 802-296-7000.

Choral music at Lebanon Opera House

The Berlin Wagner Group, an opera company devoted to the works of Richard Wagner, performs Gods and Myths, a suite of songs from Wagner’s work that showcase his influence on pop culture, at 4 p.m. on Sunday at Lebanon Opera House. The opera company divides its time between Germany and New Hampshire, where several of its members are from.

For tickets and more information, go to lebanonoperahouse.org or call 603-448-0400.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the fabled South African vocal ensemble, performs at the opera house Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m., but as of Wednesday afternoon there were only a few seats left.

Fat Saturday?

BarnArts used to hold its annual winter dance party as a kind of Mardi Gras celebration. This Saturday’s Masquerade Jazz and Funk Winter Music Carnival, scheduled for 5:30 to 10 p.m. in Barnard Town Hall, falls a couple of weeks afterward, but sounds like a fun time.

A $25 ticket ($15 for students, free for ages 6 and under) gets you access to a taco bar, plus four danceable musical acts: jazz players Michael Zsoldos (saxophone) and Ben Kogan (upright bass); the Speak Easy Prohibition Band, a group of local players formed by Peter Concilio that plays jazz from the Prohibition era; the Woodstock Union High School Jazz Band; and the headliners, Zili Misik, a Boston-based, all-female ensemble that plays music from the African diaspora.

For tickets and information, go to barnarts.org, call 802-234-1645, or email info@barnarts.org.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

This story has been modified to add a link to the livestream performance of Travis Ramsey’s “String Quartet No. 1: The Importance of Being Little.”

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