Nature is for everyone. And so is music.
In “The Forest Is Full of Color,” a program featuring their original compositions, Robbie Wilson ’23 uses music to capture and appreciate the natural environment of Massachusetts and New England while also showcasing the many different identities that make up the region.
“I want to emphasize that nature is a space in which all people are welcome and a place that can enrich everyone,” Wilson said.
Wilson will direct three performances of “The Forest Is Full of Color”: on Friday, March 3, at 7 p.m. in Clark’s Razzo Hall; on Saturday, March 4, at 4 p.m. at the West Brookfield Congregational Church in West Brookfield, Massachusetts; and on Sunday, March 5, at 2 p.m. at the Worcester Art Museum.
Performing Wilson’s string quartet will be Sarah Kane ’23, first violin; Marco Marvin ’25, second violin; Gerdlie Jean Louis ’25, viola; and Holy Cross student Joe Cracolici on cello. In addition, soprano Zoe Marinakos ’24 and Holy Cross piano professor Ulysses Loken will perform Wilson’s song cycle of six Emily Dickinson poems.
Wilson recently sat down with ClarkNOW to discuss their music.
Tell us about “The Forest Is Full of Color.”
It’s my capstone. The music major has four tracks, and I’m doing three of them — music technology, composition and theory, and performance [Wilson plays the cello].
The concert includes a song cycle of six Emily Dickinson poems, and a four-movement string quartet. I grouped them under the title “The Forest Is Full of Color” because I feel very strongly about nature.
I grew up in rural Massachusetts, which I love, but like many rural areas, there’s a lack of diversity — different than Clark. So, with this project, I’m trying to represent and create a sense of familiarity with different identities of people and cultures and tie it back to nature. The compositions emphasize those identities and show how they are linked with pastoral Massachusetts.
I didn’t really do classical music until I came to Clark; I was a jazz and blues guitarist throughout high school, and was exposed to styles like blues, Americana, and country. Those experiences and styles have heavily influenced my classical compositional style, which I classify as a return to late Romanticism.
What have some of your challenges been on this project?
This isn’t a bad challenge, but it’s been interesting to see how the musicians interpret my work. I’m working with classical musicians: a string quartet, classical singer, and classical pianist — and they’re amazing players. But in the piece, I’ve written parts that in my mind are blues guitar lines or gospel lyrics. It’s about the interpretation; a lot of the people I used to gig with or play guitar with would interpret the score in a completely different way than these classical musicians, even if it’s written the same.
The second movement of the string quartet almost didn’t end up in the final version. I had a really hard time writing it — I kept writing melodies that were bluesy or jazzy or gospel-inspired, and kept wondering whether I should just write it for a blues, jazz, or gospel band. I thought having it played by the classical quartet was going to sound like someone speaking with a really bad accent — almost appropriative. I have an issue with the turn-of-the-century composers who tried to “elevate” Black and Indigenous music to the classical stage — they didn’t think the music was good enough by itself. They had to bring it into the classical sphere.
I was trying hard not to do that — but it was difficult to get the inspirations and identities into the score without them sounding almost like a parody and leaving a bad taste in your mouth.
That’s why I originally took that second movement out — but then the string quartet no longer had ties with different identities or the overall theme of the project. I put a stripped-down version back in. This reharmonization is heavily inspired by the melody of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” which over the years became an American folk standard and has a lot of personal resonance for me.
My mom is African American, and her family is from California. I lived there until I was two; I don’t remember California, but I do remember one of the first things my grandmother sent me was a book of American folk stories that came with a CD of songs. One of them was “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” and I’ve had it in the back of my head ever since.
What’s the process been like, from composition to performance?
I started writing the string quartet in January 2022, with a plan to finish it in August, then November. I completed it this past January. It’s not all that long a time for this kind of work, but I can see my development: The person who wrote the first movement is different from the person who wrote the fourth movement.
When I decided to do a performance series, I also decided I would do all of the administrative things. I had to learn how to work with venues and liability insurance, and about basic copyright and publishing law. The musicians are going to get royalties — it won’t be a lot, but what’s important is that I learned how to do it. Everything is going to be published.
I applied for lots of grants, and received one from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and another from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Clark. I also received a Clark opportunity funding grant. And I created a GoFundMe so I could do all this and pay the musicians, without having to play [in the concerts] myself! I wanted to be able to direct them.
At the first rehearsal, it was a mix of “Oh my gosh, some of these things are sounding exactly like I thought they would — this is like the most angelic experience ever,” and “Some of these things are a little crunchier — OK, I need to adjust this.”
But it’s proof that this dream I had when I was younger — to be a musician, in any capacity — is not just feasible, it’s happening now. I get to fulfill my own dreams, and that is really gratifying.
What’s it been like to learn so many different aspects of music at Clark?
All of my professors have been amazingly helpful and supportive. I only started playing cello my first year, and my teacher, Ariana Falk, is fantastic. When I started, she gave me the freedom to pursue the music I enjoyed — it was the perfect environment.
I’m thinking about a future in arts administration, and Professor Cailin Marcel Manson, who runs the New England Repertory Orchestra, has inspired me in that area. He made me realize that if I want a career in music, I first have to be my own administrator. And Professor John Freyermuth has been incredibly helpful, in and out of the classroom, especially since I’m also thinking about a future in audio engineering.
My composition advisor is Professor John Aylward. He’s given me the best advice: Compose every note, to the tiniest detail, in your head first, and then put it on paper. Instead of sitting at a piano and testing every note, stopping and starting, just let the music flow in your brain. You already know what the chords sound like.
That was the biggest musical “a-ha!” I’ve ever had.
What’s your musical background?
I started playing guitar about nine years ago. I would gig in Worcester and around West Brookfield once or twice a week, all throughout high school. My mom would have to drive me, and I would be playing in bars that I wasn’t old enough to get into as a customer.
During those sessions, I didn’t necessarily know the songs — I just said I did. I learned them by ear and would watch what everyone else was doing. My theory skills were lacking, though, so taking those courses at Clark has been great — I could put names to the things I had been doing.
I’ve made connections at Clark that have allowed me to branch out. I ended up getting in touch with the director of music at Winona State University in Minnesota, and now I’m composing a wind ensemble piece for them.
What have you been up to at Clark outside of music?
I’ve been on the swimming and diving team since I started at Clark. I came to campus on a recruiting trip — I couldn’t stay overnight, and I had to drive home in an awful thunderstorm. The members of the team kept texting me to make sure I got home all right. They made me feel so awesome and comfortable — I chose Clark over Howard University because of that team. They went out of their way to give me a good experience, and I’m trying to replicate that now and live up to what they did.