On Nov. 9, the orchestra room transformed from a rehearsal space into a site of musical experimentation. Students, faculty, and family members filled every seat as an audience excited to see Synergy Music Collective in their fall concert, “In Collaboration.” The title alludes to one of the major themes of the group and this concert, especially — the collaboration between student artists across traditional separations by their ensemble affiliation, style, and medium.
Grace Alexander ’23 and Sam Ivory ’23 founded Synergy Music Collective in the spring of 2021. Alexander explained that she and Ivory founded the ensemble because they wanted to level the playing field and bring together a non-hierarchical music collective that focused on collaboration. This goal resonated with many students, with the ensemble growing from 13 to over 80 members in less than a year and a half.
The concert featured four student conductors, two composers, two soloists, and five student artists live painting. All of the paintings were sold after the concert in a silent auction. Co-founder and artistic director Ivory opened the concert by conducting four movements from Igor Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella Suite.” Stravinsky’s suite provided an excellent introduction to the night’s music.
Other pieces included “Vltava” by Bedrich Smetana, conducted by Siena Olson ’23; “Oboe Concerto in C minor” by Benedetto Marcello featuring soloist Lauren Vilendrer ’23 and conductor Tye Van Pelt ’23; “Viola Concerto in G minor” by Cecil Forsyth featuring soloist Louis Dhoore ’23 and conductor Jake Gesell ’22; and “Dreaming” by Rachel Colling ’23 and conducted by Ivory. Each piece involved a different combination of musicians, highlighting the breadth of the ensemble’s musical talent. Alternating instruments, genres, and techniques create different landscapes of sound. Layering the textures and timbres of the various sections added dimension, each color shining through note by note.
Between the larger works, performers played student-composed seamless transitions. The four transitions were composed by Alexander and Aiden Kocian ’25. As performers moved to prepare for the next piece, others played student compositions that connected the works.
“We were talking to Jimmy Levi about the idea for an interactive composition where players would be placed around the room and would change based on how close audience members were to them. Then I think I said it would be really cool if the musicians started playing before the audience even entered before the concert even started. And then we were like —what if the music never stopped? And that’s what gave birth to the idea,” said Ivory ’23 in an email to the Messenger. The student-composed work lessened the distinction between performer and audience as performers talked with each other audience members before ultimately becoming audience members.
In an email to the Messenger, seamless transition composer Kocian wrote, “I by no means was involved in the idea’s conception, but I do know that it was originally tried out in Synergy’s fall 2021 Concert and has just stuck ever since.” Indeed, the music never stopped during the “In Collaboration” concert, with a continuous stream of playing uninterrupted by pauses or applause.
In addition to creating a cool effect, the seamless transitions allowed student composers to experiment with their craft. Kocian described the process as “giving composers the opportunity to work on something less committal and more experimental that still has the potential to sound really cool and be actually performed.”
Like many others, Kocian became involved in Synergy because of the collaborative nature of the group. He wrote, “To see students from a number of different departments get involved for one performance is difficult to pull off and rewarding to see. I originally got involved as a transition composer last semester when I was exploring the concept of found music and honing my improvisation skills as a vocalist. I was invited to a meeting with the two artistic directors, Sam Ivory and Grace Alexander, as well as student conductor Jake Gessell, and we began writing transitions.”
The synergistic nature of Synergy Music Collective has made the group stand out among the many musical ensembles at St. Olaf. “In Collaboration” challenges traditional Western music norms by emphasizing student vision, experimentation with performance, and interaction across artistic disciplines. Live painting added to the concert-going experiment by providing a visual element and even a slight musical complexity when soft sections allowed the audience to hear the stroke of paint brushes.
Synergy inspires musicians to take a more holistic approach to music without confining themselves to music-making in a traditional ensemble or academic setting. It has influenced Kocian in multiple ways. “Synergy has actually influenced me to switch majors to music composition due to its collaborative nature. I realized earlier this semester that I wanted a more holistic music education, especially with more instrumental music opportunities. As a musician with a primarily choral music background, it has been enriching to see this world of instrumental music open up to me through this ensemble,” Kocian wrote.
Alexander hopes Synergy will continue to collaborate with other departments and continue the group’s mission of supporting student musicians to explore music in a less hierarchical setting. She plans to partner with the English Department and feature spoken word at Synergy’s spring concert.