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The Composer Chemist

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Double major Caileen Tallant arranges an original score for Christmas Vespers

by Carlos Anchondo ’14

A solemn hush filled the Margarite B. Parker Chapel as the 2015 Christmas Vespers service began. Members of the Trinity Choir, Voix d’Esprit, and Chamber Singers processed in a dignified line toward the altar singing O Come, All Ye Faithful. The Trinity community had come together for an annual holiday tradition. As the service continued, one choir member eagerly awaited one carol in particular, a carol she herself composed.

Caileen Tallant ’16 premiered her arrangement of In the Bleak Midwinter at Vespers as the culmination of more than a month’s worth of writing and editing. Tallant set the text of Christina Rossetti, an English poet, to music, using the lyrics as a framework to structure the piece. More than 120 students — sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses — brought Tallant’s hard work to life, something she calls a surreal experience.

“I could not believe that it was actually happening,” Tallant says. “During the call time before Vespers, we ran through the piece and I teared up because it was exactly like I had imagined it to sound in my head.”

A chemistry and music composition double major, Tallant was offered the opportunity to score a piece for Vespers after David Heller, chair of the music department, heard an earlier choral piece by Tallant at an end-of-the-semester composition jury. Heller introduced Tallant to In the Bleak Midwinter, the chord progressions already forming in her mind.

Originally a poem, In the Bleak Midwinter was popularized as a Christmas carol by composer Gustav Holst in 1906. The text tells of the coming of Christ amidst a scene of desolate cold and snow. Tallant based the composition’s phrasing around climaxes in the lyrics, contrasting the unforgivable winter with the appearance of Christ. As she wrote, Tallant considered the specific chamber style indicative of the Vespers service.

The piece’s debut at Vespers proved to be a nerve-wracking, yet ultimately gratifying experience for Tallant.  

“I was incredibly vulnerable because my emotions went into writing the piece,” Tallant says. “To expose that to a bunch of strangers and to receive positive feedback was a reassuring process and a sign that I can do this.”

Tallant came to Trinity from Aledo, Texas, with the intention of becoming pre-med. She found that she truly enjoyed research, but also that she missed music and playing piano, a hobby since the age of seven. As a sophomore, Tallant began working toward a music major, taking courses in theory, music history, orchestration, a primary instrument and more. She joined choir to fulfill an ensemble requirement and enrolled in private composition lessons with music professor Brian Bondari.

After she was asked to compose In the Bleak Midwinter, Tallant struggled to start writing and worried about making the piece perfect. Bondari reassured her, asking her not to put too much pressure on herself and to simply put pen to paper. Tallant concentrated on the act of writing and saw the Vespers presentation as the final reward.

“I cannot tell you how much I have grown from when I started with Dr. Bondari to now,” Tallant says. “You can always get better, but now I see myself as a composer whereas before I was just a person who wrote music.”

Looking forward to her final semester, Tallant is preparing for her senior recital where she will be performing original works that she composed. She will conduct that recital, featuring a large chamber orchestra piece, and is contemplating a theme of love gone awry.

In addition to music, Tallant is studying a boxlike molecule and is testing the addition of more molecules inside the box. The goal is to bind the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and to see how much the box can expand without distorting it and making it non-synthesizable. She is traveling to San Diego in March 2016 to present at an American Chemistry Society conference.

With the ultimate dream of studying how music affects the brain, Tallant is confident that both chemistry and music composition are in her future. Grateful for the support of both departments, Tallant has scored one harmonious double major with a bright, yet unwritten ending.

Carlos Anchondo is a writer and editor for University Marketing and Communications and is a 2014 Trinity graduate. He can be found on Twitter at @cjanchondo or at canchond [at] trinity.edu.