A Musical Postcard to MIT Graduates by Frederick Harris Jr.

How a Tony-winning alum and more than 200 student musicians worked together on campus and from afar to create Diary of a Pandemic Year.

A musical postcard to MIT graduates

How a Tony-winning alum and more than 200 student musicians worked together on campus and from afar to create Diary of a Pandemic Year.

Originally published in The MIT Technology Review on August 24, 2021
 

On February 11, I got a call from MIT’s executive director of Institute events and protocol, Gayle Gallagher. President Reif had just announced that MIT would again be conducting commencement online—and to open the ceremony, we needed a compelling piece of music that would evoke renewal as we began to emerge from the pandemic. 

After nearly a year of socially distanced teaching, learning, and living, I envisioned music that not only reflected upon the losses and challenges we’ve faced but also embraced optimism about how we might come back from darkness as a better and more thoughtful society. Involving many music students and highlighting MIT’s iconic campus quickly became priorities. And the intimacy of the voice was a must.

But what was feasible, given MIT’s covid protocols? With few exceptions, students weren’t allowed to play or sing together in the same spaces. And who—on short notice—could craft a composition with such a specific intention, and for the unusual combined forces of orchestra, wind ensemble, jazz ensemble, Senegalese drumming ensemble, and multiple choirs? We needed a composer with the technical and professional chops to tackle such a daunting task—and the heart and humanity to understand why it was needed for this moment in time. 

I instantly knew that Tony Award–­winning alumnus Jamshied Sharifi ’83, with his long history of working with MIT students and his willingness to take on large-scale projects, was the only person for the job. Always in high demand—even during the pandemic—as an arranger, producer, and composer for Broadway, film, and artists in many genres, he agreed to do it at once. 

Because this project would involve singers, unlike the instrumental collaborations we’d done over the years, we knew we had to find an appropriate text. At Gayle’s suggestion, I contacted MIT poet Erica Funkhouser, who compiled some of her students’ recent poems about the pandemic. And once Jamshied read them, his vision became clear. “The emotional openness, simplicity, and, at times, aching sadness of their writing was my guiding light,” he says, “and informed all compositional decisions.”

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