To Rome and Back: Part One – Inspired by the Search for Inspiration

Since coming to Oberlin, Credo alums Dana Johnson (violin, ’14) and Corey Worley (viola, ’15) have sought to play the music of our time.

This passion for contemporary music has led to playing in Oberlin’s contemporary music ensemble, participating in specialized new music academies, and forming their own new music ensembles. One of these ensembles is Trio Ligatura.

Born out of the remaining members of their former new music collective Semble N; Dana, Corey, and cellist Aaron Wolff united by their desire to play the seminal work, The Companion Guide to Rome by composer Andrew Norman. The Companion Guide to Rome is a 9 movement, virtuosic work.

Each movement is a different character study of 9 different churches in Rome. The work is full of whimsy, explosive energy, and is a kaleidoscope of extended techniques (check out Trio Ligatura playing selections at the Kennedy Center here).

Andrew Norman writes:

Like many of the buildings in Rome, this piece is the product of a long gestation marked by numerous renovations, accretions, and ground-up reconstructions. What has emerged is a collection of portraits—nine in all—of my favorite Roman churches. The music is, at different times and in different ways, informed by the proportions of the churches, the qualities of their surfaces, the patterns in their floors, the artwork on their walls, and the lives and legends of the saints whose names they bear. The more I worked on these miniatures, the less they had to do with actual buildings and the more they became character studies of imaginary people, my companions for a year of living in the Eternal City.

This story spoke to the ensemble, which led to much discussion about how art inspires art. Specifically, how can architecture – a visual medium – inspire music – an acoustic medium? And how can centuries old churches continue to inspire artists today?

Driven by these questions, the trio applied for an Oberlin XARTs grant to go to the Eternal City, home of the 9 churches that originally inspired Andrew Norman. They would then, back in Oberlin, create an audio-visual installation that explores the cyclical process of inspiration. Before the ensemble knew it, they were on a flight bound to Rome with backs packed with cameras and recorders.

The time in Rome was no vacation: 5 days. 9 churches. 80-90 degree weather. Dana, Corey, and Aaron spent hours in each church, with their cameras, capturing many of the minute details and sounds that often are under appreciated. Each member captured his or her own individual experiences in each church.

A typical day in Rome was breakfast on the go, visit church 1, lunch, visit church 2, a sight-seeing excursion, dinner, visit church 3, and then finally walking their blistered, sunburnt selves back to the apartment they stayed in. As busy as it was, they loved every moment of it.

Months have gone by since then and now it’s commencement weekend, the day before the opening of their installation. To see the fruits of their labor, be sure to go to Oberlin’s Birenbaum Performance Venue between 1:30pm-9:30pm this Friday. At 4pm and 8pm, Trio Ligatura will be performing The Companion Guide to Rome in the space (learn more here). Be sure to stay tuned for another post where the group will discuss the process of putting together this massive project.


Trio Ligatura was formed in 2015 at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Passionate about contemporary music, the trio regularly presents compositions of the 20th and 21st century while frequently collaborating with living composers and artists. Recent engagements include appearances at the Kennedy Center, Oberlin’s Danenberg Honors Recital, WOBC Live from Studio B, and WCLV Classical in Cleveland. They have performed in masterclasses for the Calder String Quartet, Dimitri Murrath, and the Mivos String Quartet. The ensemble has performed in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Chicago, and in Maccagno, Italy at SoundSCAPE.

Michelle Pincombe