Music professor jazzed about writing a score for 10K race

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Brian McWhorter
Brian McWhorter

Brian McWhorter is giving a whole new meaning to the word soundtrack.

In what could be a first anywhere, the UO music professor is writing a piece of music to accompany a track and field event. Not for the opening ceremonies, mind you, but to provide a musical score to a particular competition, in this case the men’s final in the 10,000-meter race in the upcoming IAAF World Junior Championships.

You might call it the 10K in B sharp.

It's a challenge that is almost unique in the worlds of music and track, and McWhorter's composition has attracted national attention. The New York Times has a feature story in its July 22 edition, and other local and national media have picked up the story.

McWhorter is a professor of trumpet in the UO School of Music and Dance and a prominent figure in the worlds of experimental classical music, improvised music and traditional classical music. One thing he’s never tried to do, though, is score a track meet. With music, that is.

But when organizers of the world junior championships approached him earlier this year with the idea of composing a piece to accompany the 10K, McWhorter was jazzed.

“It’s an interesting challenge for me,” McWhorter said last week, as he was putting the final touches on his composition. “I see it as another extension of the ways music can fit into so many different places.”

But he admits being nervous about the upcoming performance. The 10K final will start about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, the last event on the first day of the international competition.

At the meet, McWhorter will conduct and perform with the UO Brass and Percussion Ensemble, a 20-person group that also will play the national anthem as well as Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” during the meet’s opening ceremony on July 22. The ensemble also will perform Eric Ewazen’s “Symphony in Brass” during the entrance of athletes from almost 200 nations.

Hayward FieldCompetition begins the morning of July 22 with a number of qualifying rounds. The opening ceremony will be held at 8 p.m., followed by the 10K final.

Vin Lananna, associate athletic director at the UO and head of TrackTown USA, said he’s not aware of anyone having music written and performed for a track event before. And outside of perhaps gymnastics and ice skating, it seems there are few occasions when original music has been composed specifically to accompany an athletic competition as it happens.

But given that the opening ceremonies for a track meet, even a major international meet such as this, are typically more subdued than those for, say, the Summer Olympics, Lananna thought it would be interesting to add a new dimension to the event.

“I thought it would be really cool to do something a little different, something that was genuine and in the spirit of Hayward Field, where we have really passionate fans,” he said. “I think we have a great connection between culture and athletics in a city where that really resonates. And then Brian stepped up and that was it.”

McWhorter threw himself into the project, watching tape of 10K races, researching the heart rates of the runners and watching just about anything showing Steve Prefontaine that he could find. One of the things that really struck him, though, was the Hayward tradition of fans clapping during the final 100 meters of each lap in the 10K race.

The longest race in a track meet, the 10K runs about 30 minutes. McWhorter said he realized early on that writing a 30-minute piece of music probably wouldn’t be the best approach. But the clapping gave him an idea.

He plans to key the music to the clapping, in a way he hopes will add to, rather than detract from, the experience of both the crowd and the competitors.

“I think I want to boost the mood, but I don’t want to bring attention to the music. I want to boost the energy of the race,” McWhorter said. “I don’t want people to even notice it; I want them to feel it. I’d love it if the runners felt it but didn’t necessarily know they were listening to music.”

—By Greg Bolt, Public Affairs Communication