Piercing tones ring out forcefully and are at once silenced as conductor Scott Kaliszak prompts students with, "Ready? Explosion!"

"Every time you move your bow, explode with sound!" he urges. "Broken string rules in effect. If you break your string, I'll get you a new one!"

Kaliszak introduced a new piece of music to the Red Lion Area Senior High School string orchestra in early January, and "it did fall on shocked ears," he said. The modern style and dissonant tones left some students unsure if they could handle it at first.

New York composer and Red Lion graduate Derek Cooper chose the orchestra to premiere "Obsidian Rainbow" worldwide on Wednesday, March 6.

The title was the last thing to come along, Cooper said.

It starts with a quick bang, so he thought, "What's something that has this quick flash and it changes?"

He had seen pictures of the phenomenon in which obsidian, a volcanic glass created by lava, appears black at first but changes to reveal a rainbow of layers, and it fit well with the music.

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Challenge for beginners: Cooper wanted to create something that was challenging yet approachable.

The 2005 graduate played trombone in high school and performed in marching band, concert band and "whatever else had band at the end of it," and he remembers feeling there weren't enough interesting pieces of music for beginners.

Most music for groups of this age uses a major or minor scale, but Cooper said his piece uses octatonic — alternating between half and whole tones — and whole-tone scales, more commonly used by 20th-century composers such as Igor Stravinsky. 

Students also have the freedom to improvise, as there is no specific rhythm — the idea being, "don’t do what anyone next to you is doing," he said.

"It's out there," said junior violinist Rees Ruoevich, noting that it tested the rules he had learned.

But a method called recycling — in which each instrument plays the same piece of music in different sections of the composition — makes it easier for students to grasp the music since they can hear what others are playing and practice in unison, Cooper said.

It's something he said he's experimenting with for the first time with this piece.

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Sharing knowledge: Cooper will be coming to the school to rehearse with the orchestra and student chamber ensembles Tuesday and Wednesday, March 5-6, including time for a Q-and-A-style lecture and private lessons.

"It's very different having a composer actually alive because you can ask him questions about what he meant when he put this type of accent or type of dynamic in the piece," said violinist Keila Vasquez-Perez, a senior.

Cooper and Kaliszak did something similar at Susquehannock High School when Kaliszak was teaching there as a long-term sub in 2017, on Cooper's piece "Visions of a Prayer."

"They were open, they were engaged with the music," Cooper said of the students. "I was kind of blown away with some of the things they were asking."


Cooper will be able to share his journey from high school to becoming a working composer in New York, where he is studying for his doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music. 

"It's really cool for the students to see, 'Hey, this is somebody that's doing music for a living,'" Kaliszak said.

Cooper will talk about how to pursue music after high school, how to ruin or make your career and how to continue with music outside of career choice through avenues such as local ensembles or entrepreneurship.

Kaliszak wants students to see that it's not something they have to major in to do.

Rees plans to go into music education, and Vasquez-Perez is exploring the idea of music therapy alongside medicine.

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Appreciation: As students rehearse, Kaliszak conducts with energy and enthusiasm, a smile playing across his face as the orchestra builds to a crescendo.

"Oh good, you broke some strings!" he said.

"The students have really come to appreciate it," Kaliszak said. "They now start leaving rehearsal going, 'Ah, I love that piece!" 


When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 6

Where: Bethany United Methodist Church, 121 W. Broadway, Red Lion


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