Professor of Music Su Lian Tan (right) enlisted the help of Middlebury Animation Studio Director Daniel Houghton (left) and several students, including Coumba Winfield ’17 and Hosain Ghassemi ’17, to create a digital backdrop for her new cello concerto.

MIDDLEBURY, VT — Myths and fairy tales, nostalgia and romance– those, plus the landscape of Bali, inspired Su Lian Tan’s Legends of Kintomani, the Middlebury College professor of music’s new five-movement cello concerto. Cellist Darrett Adkins and the Burlington Chamber Orchestra will perform the Vermont debut of the concerto on Oct. 8 at the Mahaney Center for the Arts.

Tan’s new work is a multi-sensory experience, pairing her music with lush imagery in the form of large-scale digital murals that provide a gently animated visual background to the musicians on stage. She collaborated with the Middlebury College Animation Lab for the artwork, which was designed to complement the music with a strong sense of storytelling. For Tan, working with Arts Technology Specialist Daniel Houghton ’06 and his team of students provided a break from the solitary work of music composition.

“You can get stuck in your brain when you’re a composer, and I usually relish getting outside of it and learning new things, and being open to receiving completely new points of view,” said Tan. “That’s what makes it fun for me when I’m collaborating.”

Slide Show:


The slideshow above shows how the images in the large animated murals progress from start to finish in each movement of the cello concerto. Each image transitions gradually, timed to correspond with the music.

Tan began composing Legends of Kintamani during a sabbatical a few years ago, when she traveled with a friend to Bali–a landscape so beautifully pristine that it reminded Tan strongly of growing up in Kuala Lumpur. She began to imagine a cello concerto that would communicate that experience of going home, but not quite, and tell a story of the present meeting the past and reality meeting myth.

Back at Middlebury, Tan connected with Houghton at a departmental meeting, and started to consider the possibility of combining her composition with the work of the Middlebury Animation Studio. She jumped at the chance to collaborate. The project was supported by the Digital Liberal Arts program, a Mellon-funded initiative to foster digital scholarship and collaboration.

For Houghton, the project was initially daunting. He’d spent the previous year and a half working with students to create the short film

. Now he was faced with creating images for 30 minutes–five full movements–of music, with half the time to create the animation. “The math didn’t add up,” said Houghton. “So what had to change was the approach.”

Instead of a full-fledged film, Houghton and his team of students–including Hosain Ghassemi ’17, Ruben Gilbert ’15, James Graham ’16, Sofy Maia ’16, and Coumba Winfield ’17, as well as Middlebury Union High School student Justin Holmes–set out to create gradually transitioning moving murals, or animated backdrops. “When you’re making a film, the film is the bully in the room, and the film says, ‘Look at me,’” said Houghton. This time, the visuals couldn’t overpower the rest of the room; they needed to complement the music, and allow the cellist to shine.

“The eye-opening piece for me was the realization that the slow imagery could be so effective,” said Houghton. It allowed for the team of animators to complete their work in a matter of months, but also for the audience’s eye to move from the imagery to the stage and back, whenever. The idea was to “create an environment that will elevate the experience of the music without stealing its thunder,” said Tan.

To do so, Houghton and the student animators had to dream up imagery for music that was still being composed, often working from Tan’s descriptions and hummed and sung melodies. “But surprisingly, the close collaboration and frequent conversations with Su really allowed us to see what was going on in her head in a way that we could then try and translate onto the mural,” said Coumba Winfield ’17, one of the student artist-animators.

Over the course of a semester and following summer vacation, the students conjured up five deeply saturated, brightly colored vistas that focused on a volcano in Bali. In the murals, a magical bird–the Garuda of Buddhist and Hindu mythology–rises up. Mist shrouds the volcano, then burns off to reveal lush rice paddies. The music pulls from both European influences and Malaysian and South Asian traditions.

“When they finally had something for me to see, I was so completely excited,” said Tan. “I had only been telling them a part of the story, leaving them to tell the rest. When I saw that first movement, it was so amazing!”

Saturday’s performance will include will feature cello soloist Darrett Adkins, the Burlington Chamber Orchestra under guest conductor Evan Bennett, as well as several Middlebury College alumni and student musicians. Tickets are $20 for the general public; $15 for Middlebury College faculty, staff, alumni, and other ID holders; and $6 for students.

Reporting by Kathryn Flagg; Photo by Paul Dahm; Still images by the Middlebury College Animation Studio

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