Dream Builder

Gifts to the Dartmouth College Fund help make great things happen for our students. Here is one of their stories.
Brian Chalif taking a note

Brian Chalif ’16, from Huntington, New York, comes from a family of five children, all musicians. He’s been a singer most of his life, and developed an interest in composition his freshman year. He recently composed a choral work, “Dreams,” through an independent study with leading Estonian composer Toivo Tulev. The Dartmouth Glee Club premiered the work alongside Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor in November 2015. Brian is a music and computer science double major, and sings bass with the Dartmouth College Glee Club and the Dartmouth Aires.

I was playing with the idea of dreams and had the start of a song—a drone with an ethereal chord that builds over it. I took this idea to my composition teacher, Spencer Topel, and said I would love to develop it for the Glee Club. He encouraged me to do it, and connected me with Toivo, who had just come to Dartmouth as a Fulbright visiting scholar.

Toivo completely changed how I thought about composing for singers. He taught me how important it is to focus on the lyrics from the start. Then from the words, meaning and emotion drive what you do.

My composition uses lyrics from “Dreams,” a simple poem by Langston Hughes about how dreams inspire us, and without them we die. The piece moves from a semi-awake state, deep into a dream. It expands from six vocal parts to thirteen, each part singing a different line of the poem. Words then start to come in at all different points, like the chaos of a dream, and create these rich, beautiful, cluster harmonies.

When the Glee Club started to work on the piece, they found it confusing. At first, the big crunch chords seemed difficult and jarring. It’s a hard piece to keep in tune, and Louis Burkot, our director, did a dynamite job with that. By the end everyone really enjoyed singing it, and it had a powerful effect on the audience in Spaulding Auditorium. People told me they heard different textures depending on where they sat. That was exciting.

For me, the whole experience has been a bit mind-boggling. Dartmouth gives you opportunities to work with some of the best people in the world. I have had incredible mentors in music here, including Hilda Paredes, a leading contemporary Mexican composer who visited Dartmouth. I studied orchestration with her and have continued with Dartmouth composition professor Ashley Fure. I’m now writing an orchestra piece for the upcoming Dartmouth New Music Festival that will be performed by ensemble mise-en, a professional New York-based group. I had no idea when I first came to Dartmouth that composing would become such a big part of my life.

After Dartmouth, I will begin working as a strategy consultant in the Washington, D.C. area. I also plan to audition for a professional chorus, perhaps the Washington National Opera Chorus. Through Dartmouth connections, I hope to continue to compose and find opportunities to perform.