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UW-Eau Claire composer helps to bring historic building to life

| Judy Berthiaume

This fall, a UW-Eau Claire composer will help to bring a city of Milwaukee landmark to life.

Dr. Chia-Yu Hsu, associate professor of music-composition, was commissioned to write music to accompany a now-virtual tour of the historic Milwaukee City Hall.

The virtual tour is part of the annual Doors Open Milwaukee, a public celebration of Milwaukee’s distinctive art, architecture and neighborhoods.

Dr. Hsu’s piece will be recorded in the historic Milwaukee City Hall and presented with a video tour of the building and commentary from a Milwaukee historian.

Dr. Hsu’s piece will be recorded in the historic Milwaukee City Hall and presented with a video tour of the building and commentary from a Milwaukee historian. (Photo credit: Gillfoto/CC BY-SA)

Access Contemporary Music commissioned two composers to write new pieces for the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and the iconic City Hall. After sharing her ideas with ACM, Hsu was selected to write the piece for City Hall.

Each piece will be filmed and recorded in the building and presented with a video tour of the building and commentary from a Milwaukee historian. The virtual tour of Milwaukee City Hall will be streamed on Sept. 26 and 27. 

Built in 1895, Milwaukee’s City Hall building still is the seat of city government today.

The distinctive architecture, the Flemish Renaissance Revival style, pays homage to the city’s German ancestry. When it was built in 1895, it was the third-tallest building in the country thanks to its bell tower, which stands at 353 feet tall.

Designed by architect Henry C. Koch, the building was renovated, and the bell tower restored in 2006.

For the last five years ACM has commissioned composers to write short pieces inspired by landmark buildings featured in the Doors Open project. Typically, musicians would be in the buildings to play the music as people come through on their tour.

Since this year’s event will be virtual, ACM will travel to Milwaukee to make videos of the pieces as the music is played in each building. Those videos will be shared during the virtual tours.

Hsu has written two other pieces for architecture before, but they were for the celebration of the opening of new buildings, one a piece for Lenfest Hall in Philadelphia and the other for Pablo Center at the Confluence Center in downtown Eau Claire.

This is the first time she wrote a composition for a historical building that people will listen to while taking a tour.

The gorgeous building provided plenty of inspiration, Hsu says.

“I’m fascinated by the Flemish style of the structure, especially the interior atrium,” Hsu says. “I thought the acoustics would be amazing for a piece that has call and response and interplays between players. The acoustics of the space and the style of the building inspire the piece, as well as the surrounding area.”

Hsu’s piece, “City Renaissance,” has two main sections. The first section tries to capture the spacious acoustics of the building while moving listeners toward the quiet dawn and streets just beyond its doors, she says.

The second section takes the Renaissance composer Guillaume Dufay’s "Resvelons Nous" as the theme to create variations.

“This section depicts the lively daytime activities within the building — laughter, exhibits and meetings,” Hsu says. “The ending section returns to the musical ideas from the first section, portraying winding down of the day and the return to night before the last candle is blown out in the hall.”

While she knows the project would be perceived by the audiences differently if it was presented in person, the virtual presentation may mean it will reach more people, including those who cannot physically visit Milwaukee’s City Hall building, Hsu says.

“The pandemic is certainly changing the format for how music is reaching its audiences, especially newly created projects,” Hsu says. “Musicians are finding alternative ways to still produce concerts and reach people creatively. I’m thankful that this project could happen and still be able to share my music with people during this uncertain time.”

While the circumstances are not ideal, they do provide a teachable moment for her students.

"I often discuss with my students what we can do as musicians to share what we are passionate about under different circumstances. This is a great example of still bringing music to people’s lives in the hope of brightening their day when other things are uncertain,” Hsu says.

For more information, contact Dr. Chia-Yu Hsu, associate professor of music-composition, at 715-836-4172 or hsuc@uwec.edu.

Top photo caption: Dr. Chia-Yu Hsu, associate professor of music-composition, was commissioned to write music to accompany a now-virtual tour of the historic Milwaukee City Hall.