Santa Clara University music professor and acclaimed pianist Teresa McCollough is working on a project that will take listeners on an emotional and political trek across the world.
The musical journey started in 2007 with a gift from Emmy-award-winning composer Steve Heitzeg. He wanted to thank McCollough for bringing his composition “Sandhill Crane (Migration Variations)” to international acclaim 20 years ago, so he created a one-of-a-kind, social-justice-driven composition specifically for McCollough to perform.
This composition, “World Piece,” is a representation of each of the 192 countries in the United Nations. The songs make a political or environmental statement for each country, which McCollough improvises in performance, guided by Heitzeg’s artistically drawn scores.
Over the course of three years McCollough worked with a sound engineer to improvise each piece, starting with the scores that have actual chords and notes and progressing to the ones that are more visual, such as Togo—represented as a drawing of a yellow butterfly. With some scores, Greece for example, Heitzeg gave McCollough music notes to play as well as specific directions to play the notes three times and “think of turquoise seas and lemon trees.”
The abstract nature of many of the scores challenged McCollough because she admits to not being a strong improviser at the time she was given the project. She looked to
travel guides for inspiration. Often political issues would affect how she played a piece. At the time McCollough recorded Sierra Leone there were reports about diamond trade and child soldiers. McCollough used a ratchet to make harsh, violent sounds to represent these atrocities.
“As an improviser you have to be open to everything, you can’t think there’s a right thing or a wrong thing,” said McCollough. “I could try to do something similar now, but that’s the cool thing about improv, I could never do the same thing twice.”
Each country’s score is no longer than a minute and is presented on the World Piece Music Channel on YouTube. This channel was launched on United Nations Day in October 2010.
“YouTube is great because you can reach so many more people who can come and go,” said McCollough.
The scores and drawings evoke the spirit of each country as seen through the eyes of Heitzeg, who makes social or environmental statements within each piece. McCollough explains that this is what makes “World Piece” unable to lend itself to concert performance; Listening to 192 social statements would be overwhelming to an audience. McCollough has only played the pieces in concert as brief interludes between other parts of the compositions and with the scores projected on a screen behind her.
SCU played an important role in producing “World Piece,” helping fund McCollough’s recording sessions and proving to be very supportive of new music.
“The social justice platform of this University gives [‘World Piece’] a life of it’s own,” said McCollough. “It really connects well with the mission of the University.”
Despite the project being three years old, it continues to evolve and lead to new artistic ventures. McCollough’s dream is to put Heitzeg’s scores in a gallery space like the de Saisset and have people listen to the installation using their smart phones while walking between countries. There is also talk about having the project displayed in the U.N. lobby.
Heitzeg and McCollough have communicated for years and, despite only meeting in-person once, continue to sustain a collaborative artistic relationship. This year Heitzeg sent McCollough another set of solo piano compositions. These 13 scores will honor individuals who have worked for peace, human rights, and nonviolence, and will premiere sometime in the next year.
Heitzeg lives in Minnesota with his wife and daughter. He is a strong advocate for the “peaceful existence of all species through music.” He has written more than 100 eco-scores that honor nature and promote peace. have developed a strong artistic relationship.
“It has been an absolute pleasure and a gift in my life to have,” said McCollough.