Making Music

Humanities4 MIN READ

With technical and emotional skill, pianist Thomas Deng builds his own accompaniment

By Laura MeaderPhotography by Gabe Souza
March 16, 2021

When the pandemic robbed pianist Thomas Deng ’20 of the opportunity to perform with the Colby Symphony Orchestra, he decided to improvise.

No orchestra? No problem. The young virtuoso simply built his own.

Note by note, instrument by instrument, Deng recreated the third movement of Chopin’s Second Concerto using an electronic MIDI keyboard. The resulting “MIDI orchestra” is rich with not just technical precision but also emotional nuance. Add in Deng’s impassioned playing and his final, nine-minute video mesmerizes as much as it pleases.

“It’s really quite amazing,” Associate Professor of Music Jon Hallstrom said of the finished piece. “Both from the musical and from the technological standpoint.”

The project’s wellspring is Deng’s deep connection to music. “When you’re playing music, you’re evoking that soft portion of your soul,” the 21-year-old protégé said. When you’re playing with an orchestra, “everybody is doing the same thing. And when that happens, it’s a very heartwarming experience.”

How does he know? Because in 2018, Deng, then a sophomore, performed with the Colby Symphony Orchestra as winner of the Department of Music’s Concerto Competition. He called it the experience of a lifetime. It was also a terrific motivator.

For the next two years, the music and computer science double major practiced diligently, often late into the night. He had one goal: To win the competition as a senior and perform with the orchestra once more.

Deng indeed won again, but this time, there wouldn’t be a performance. He left Mayflower Hill, his dream unfulfilled. Back home in China, he couldn’t shake the disappointment. “It was because of the regret that I came up with the idea to do it myself.”

First, Deng recorded his piano solo, alone without accompaniment. Because the piano leads for this particular concerto, it felt intuitive to begin the project there. As he played, he kept the orchestra parts in mind, estimating and building in pauses where the melody would be passed between himself and the orchestra.

In real life, Deng would prepare for such handoffs with visual cues: eye contact with a cellist, for example, an exaggerated lift of his shoulders, a deep inhale. He found these exchanges exhilarating and tried to recreate their energy while recording his solitary solo.

Next, Deng downloaded the 20 sounds the concerto required—seven wind instruments, five strings, three violin styles, and percussion. Then, working from a 28-page score, he “played” each instrument on his MIDI keyboard and mixed them using Logic Pro software. Sounds straightforward? It’s not.

Logic Pro renders each instrument sound slightly differently. An F sharp on a violin, for example, “comes off quicker than if played by a French horn,” Deng said. To get the instruments to play at the right tempo, or to play in unison, Deng had to adjust every note manually to get just the right sound and mood.

“The literal number of notes that Thomas had to enter is pretty staggering,” said Hallstrom, who also directs Colby’s Music Interdisciplinary Computation Program. “And the fact that each note of each player’s part was entered individually and in real time in order to get the nuance of dynamics (loudness) and timing make the orchestra part sound so ‘natural.’”

In real life, a conductor would coordinate these subtleties, as well as the passing of the melody. Here, it was all Deng—soloist, orchestra, and conductor—driven by precision and drawn by the visceral memory of his one unforgettable experience performing live.

Nine months after he began, Deng finished building his orchestra. In the melding of the two files, he captured that certain synergy between orchestra and soloist. Now, back in the U.S. in a master’s program at Dartmouth, he reflected on his COVID project and a lesson the pandemic has taught us all: the importance of being together.

“Music is like that—it’s a collaborative experience,” he said. “And it’s like the epitome of human interaction; it’s an abstraction of human interaction.”