Cells, Planets: A Reflection about the Fine Arts at GSE

BY JAKE BRYANT

Editor’s Note: Over the summer, Jake Bryant attended the Governor’s School of North Carolina  (a publicly funded residential program for intellectually and artistically gifted high school students) for Choral Music.

“Celestial” is one of the few words that can accurately describe the delicious harmony present when the Governor’s School East Chorus of 2018 sang the first few notes of “Cells, Planets,” during our closing assembly. We, the choir, were firmly planted on the stage, rooted in our desire to step out of ourselves and deliver this one last performance—his one, final, fleeting gift. The notes we sang were cast into the thick, swampy, air; soaked in regret and heartache, they drifted out to the crowd slowly, as if they were trudging through molasses. Our chests were heavy and sore, and the tears we shed that day could have filled pondsupon rivers upon oceans. During those five minutes and forty-something seconds, we were an amalgam of love and warmth. For a moment, the stage lights turned into stars, the audience into planets, and it felt as if we were exploring the Milky Way. For a second or two, we were perfectly positioned between present and future, and those five minutes and forty-something seconds were millennia and fractions of milliseconds at the same time.

I’m not very superstitious, but it was truly an out-of-body experience. I have never felt so warmed by music as I did in that moment. If it was not already clear how free we felt to express our emotions and empty our hearts, our uncontrollable sobbing surely proved that; everyone, quite literally, everyone, opened their hearts without any fear, judgement, or weakness. We were all connected, and in my opinion, music was the vehicle that brought us to that destination. “Cells, Planets,” the GSE 2018 Chorus’ flagship song, was the gut-wrenching, heart-shattering “song of the summer” at Meredith College. The lyrics discuss how cells, planets, and every other part of our universe are connected in that they are (at the most basic level) made of the same things, and that human compassion is ultimately what really defines the world. This prose—combined with the lustrous, effervescent music—made for a song that was performed at the exact right time, by the exact right mix of singers and for the exact right audience, and was able to profoundly impact every single student.

This phenomenon of connectedness—of being unafraid to trust and open up to those we knew quite well, and those we didn’t know at all—was not only present during choral music performances. Every single artistic discipline managed to arouse passion and empathy within anyone who viewed or interacted with them. Never have I been more inspired by artists than I was by the musicians, dancers, actors, and artists of Governor’s School. Each and every student fully committed to their craft, day in and day out. The achievements of my peers are certainly nothing to scoff at, either. The GSE instrumental music students composed music about the intricacies of time and space that was performed at the end of the first week; the theatre students wrote, blocked, and published a play within four weeks. Of course, the students of academic disciplines were just as fearsome, wielding their pens, paper, and calculators to stir change in even the most stubborn of individuals. They were peerless in their determination to begin dialogues crucial to progress. While I did have a uniquely deep connection to the arts disciplines, I was still touched by the academia of GSE on every single day of the term.

The opportunity to attend Governor’s School was something I deeply, deeply wish was available to every student in North Carolina. The emotional and artistic attachments and freedom we discovered are unlike any that I have, and maybe ever will, experience. Never have I been in such a supportive, uplifting, hearty, compassionate environment. The experience was once-in-a-lifetime, like a blue moon, or catching a hummingbird in flight: rare, precious, and the most absolute form of beauty. My time at GSE was like a shooting star—fleeting, yes, but encapsulating and wondrous for the few moments I was able to experience it. During those magical seconds, where my fellow choir members and I joined hands and parted in the form of that final performance, we abandoned our problems in bittersweet bliss. Our hearts had swelled to planetary sizes, and, for a minute, we were threaded together, like the thread that connects cells, planets, and everything in between.

Summer Music Roundup

This summer has been an exciting time for music, with big releases from pop stars (Ariana Grande, The Carters, Troye Sivan, Shawn Mendes, Kanye West) and indie stars (Father John Misty, Mitski) alike. Below I’ve compiled just a few of the noteworthy records from the summer months as my first reviews for The Page.

BY STEPHEN ATKINSON

This summer has been an exciting time for music, with big releases from pop stars (Ariana Grande, The Carters, Troye Sivan, Shawn Mendes, Kanye West) and indie stars (Father John Misty, Mitski) alike. Below I’ve compiled just a few of the noteworthy records from the summer months as my first reviews for The Page.

Lush – Snail Mail

Snail mailOn her major-label debut, Lindsay Jordan, the nineteen year-old solo artist behind Snail Mail, rejects the notion that rock music has to be catchy. Not one of the songs on Lush will be stuck in your head after the first listen, but that’s part of what makes this record special. Jordan’s unpredictable—sometimes erratic—melodies leave room for the raw emotional power of her lyrics; a simple word like “Anyways” is a punch to the gut, a shift in tempo a knockout blow. When she sings “I’m feeling low/ I’m not into sometimes,” her every inflection is tired but desperate, recalling high school heartbreaks and summer ennui. Clearly, Jordan is a talented guitarist, and with her interesting rhythms she makes the most out of a guitar-bass-drum sound plenty-heard in indie rock music. Sure, the songs start to blur together by the end of the record, but so do the bittersweet summer days Lindsay Jordan sings of—days where it’s a “hard trip to the kitchen sink” and anxieties about friends and lovers abound. It may sound sad, but when Jordan sings, “And if you do find someone better/ I’ll still see you in everything/ for always, tomorrow and all the time,” she finds a silver lining in life’s ups and downs: the memories that last forever.

Grade: B+

God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty

FJMIt’s easy hate to Father John Misty. Once a drummer of the ultimate so-hipster-it’s-not-even-hipster-anymore band of the late 2000s (Fleet Foxes), Josh Tillman traded in his flannels and bandmates for sleeker suits and a project of his own. And ever since, it’s felt as though Tillman thinks he’s too brilliant to be spotted in the background of Fleet Foxes videos tapping boredly on a cowbell; his solo project under the name Father John Misty has been grand in every sense—at times overwhelmingly sarcastic, sincere, witty, and silly—to the point that many find him egotistical, even insufferable. But God’s Favorite Customer finds him at his most likable and accessible. His best attributes remain, but in smaller, more tasteful doses. There’s pleasing folk-pop in “Mr. Tillman,” wry balladry in “Please Don’t Die,” and dark humor in “Hangout at the Gallows.” It’s hard to believe that Misty put all that much time into these thirty-eight minutes of crowd-pleasers, but crowd-pleasers they are nonetheless.

 

Grade: B

Shawn Mendes – Shawn Mendes

Shawn MendesSometimes it feels like Shawn Mendes is simply a product of the popular music industry, a one-size-fits-all star for the masses. However, on his self-titled album, Mendes shows some promising signs of humanity. “In My Blood” soars above the rest of the tracks as a testament to Mendes’ own struggles with anxiety, offering glimpses of him “laying on the bathroom floor,” an image more vivid and intimate than anything he’s offered before. The production on this track is more mature than the acoustic Ed-Sheeran-and-Justin-Bieber-inspired style that dominates his earlier work and, unfortunately, the rest of the album. While a few other tracks have some bite, namely “Lost in Japan” and “Youth,” the rest feels bland, starting with the same rhythm guitar strums and building on familiar folk-pop melodies.

At times, Mendes’ “heartbreak” songs veer into awkward corners lyrically; on “Queen” his condemnation of a woman’s refusal sounds so overtly narcissistic (and sexist?) that it’s hard to believe anyone thought it was a good idea. But, alas, it is a very catchy, fun melody—my favorite, in fact—and while the lyrical and musical content may be lagging on Shawn Mendes’ third LP, there’s at least one moment for everyone that will make them sing along or smile.

Grade: C+

Sweetener – Ariana Grande

Ariana GrandeAriana Grande’s Sweetener could be compared to a kiddie ride at an amusement park: bouncy, colorful, and light, but almost too easy. It’s more “experimental,” you may say, than typical pop albums, but there’s nothing risky about it. Grande knows what her audience wants and expects: her music matches perfectly with her pale-pink, bubblegum aesthetic. Every synth, every electric harp, every tinny drum beat on Sweetener sounds straight from a child’s toy set, and occasionally, the pop-diva whips out the Xylophone—in case you hadn’t caught on to her “I’m a little girl” vibe. Some songs make the most out of this style–songs like “sweetener,” a sped-up piano ballad with a fun trap twist, and my personal favorite, “successful,” a funk pop jaunt with frequent reminders of how…wait for it…successful Grande is. Of course, you’ve probably heard “no tears left to cry” on the radio a few hundred times by now, but it fits in well on the album and serves as a good sample of its sound, even if Grande’s vocals never quite reach the drama of “Right now I’m in a state of mind/ I wanna be in like all the time.” Ultimately, Sweetener is an escape, a celebration of pleasure that leaves you with a sugar high.

Grade: B