Spectators at Tuesday’s 10K race in the IAAF World Junior Track & Field Championships may not have realized they were part of a unique experiment combining music and sports. TrackTown USA president Vin Lananna commissioned the University of Oregon’s Brian McWhorter to compose an original piece and perform it with a live orchestra.
McWhorter, a nationally renowned trumpet player and professor at the UO, earned degrees from both the UO and Julliard. He has composed pieces for Eugene Ballet, worked with musicians like John Cale of the Velvet Underground and was principal trumpet in the Eugene Symphony in 2008-2009.
McWhorter was reluctant to accept the assignment, because he only had three weeks to write the 30-minute piece of music and rehearse with the musicians. He also explored different styles, like attempting to match the music with the runners’ heartbeats.
Ultimately, he aimed for the surreal version “of what might happen in a Roman coliseum” as his stylistic goal.
“It was kind of cinematic in its approach, because a lot of work I do is for film, so it was a real backdrop,” McWhorter said. “It didn’t have much melody per se. A lot of huge brass chords, but underneath it was percussive, accelerating music. The entire thing sort of had this effect of speeding up constantly. I was trying to push the runners just like the audience pushes them with their clapping.”
The runners found the music helpful during the punishing race. Curtis Anderson, director of communications for TrackTown USA said that this is the first time a live piece of music has been commissioned and performed live for a race, at least in the United States.
“There’s a lot of pain involved in this race and they said it kind of took their mind of it during the rougher patches,” Anderson said. “Every time the runners came around the Bowerman Curve, they ramped it up, and when they went down the back stretch they toned it down. So it was sort of a supportive piece.”
McWhorter was very happy with the way the music turned out, and thought the band sounded amazing. The only disappointment was that people watching the live broadcast couldn’t hear the music because of track meet rules.
However, he says he never intended to write a piece that would stand out, so he didn’t mind that the TV viewers could not hear it.
“The music was for the runners and the audience, and they heard it,” McWhorter said. “It’s not strong music, like people come away humming a tune, but it just sort of filled the mood, and that’s sort of what I was after.”
Coincidentally, the same night of the 10K, a documentary McWhorter was featured in, called “I Live For Art,” won the Silver Award at the Philadelphia International Film Festival. He composed music for the film and was also one of the three artists profiled.
McWhorter said that most of his work involves bringing music into something else, like film or dance.
“This feels like it’s in line with all that, supporting the runners at a track meet,” he said.
Anderson said there’s a good chance they might commission music for a track event again in the future.