Student composer caps four years at Brown with a plastic-instrument symphony

“Plastic Orchestra,” composed by Class of 2020 graduate Sofia Frohna, celebrates old music traditions while embracing seldom-heard instruments, from melodicas to boomwhackers.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When Sofia Frohna first set foot on the Brown University campus, she knew she wanted to join a musical group.

There was just one small problem: She didn’t play any traditional instruments.

All she had brought from home was a melodica — a small plastic keyboard that makes noise when the player blows into an attached mouthpiece. The melodica is typically considered little more than a kids’ toy or a gag gift, and it rarely makes an appearance in formal performances. But against all odds, both Frohna and her melodica were welcomed into the Brown Band.

“I showed up to the first day of band practice and I said, ‘Hey, can I play this?’” she said. “And they said, ‘Sure, just find a section that will take you.’ So I ended up joining the flute section and played melodica with them all four years. I never learned a real band instrument.”

Over Frohna’s four years at Brown, what began as an amusing pastime evolved into a full-on passion for plastic instruments. In her sophomore year, the music concentrator and composer wrote a piece for three melodicas and performed it at a concert with her roommates. Two years later, as a graduating senior, Frohna decided her honors thesis would be a musical ode to plastic: a six-movement piece composed for an orchestra of melodicas, recorders, egg shakers, boomwhackers, PVC pipe flutes and other instruments more likely to be found in a toy store than in a music shop.

“I began to really fall in love with the melodica, and I thought, hey, even though this is viewed as a toy or just an educational tool, there's some really beautiful, interesting things you can do with it,” Frohna said. “When it came time to decide what big project I wanted to work on for my senior year, I said, ‘Why don't I include this thing that's been a part of my life the whole time I've been here at Brown, and also think about it more intellectually than I have so far?’”

Like the honors theses of countless Brunonians past and present, Frohna’s “Plastic Orchestra” subverts expectations, challenges conventions and draws from the wisdom she gained over four years of coursework and cocurricular activities spanning multiple interests and subjects.

Frohna, who considered studying composition and voice performance in a conservatory setting before deciding to attend Brown, is grateful for the breadth of subjects she was able to explore thanks to the University’s Open Curriculum.

“I’m thankful every day that I’m here — not just because of the Open Curriculum and the exploration that allowed me, but also because that exploration has made me a full person and a better composer,” Frohna said. “I found an interest in art history and poetry that has really informed my language as a composer.”

The Los Angeles native said she found her calling initially when renowned guitar composer Ian Krouse visited her eighth-grade classroom to discuss his work and career. Krouse later became a mentor to Frohna as she began writing music for local festivals and independent films. Over the years, she has written mostly for guitar, chorus and various classical string and woodwind instruments — so she was nervous and excited to delve into unfamiliar territory with her “Plastic Orchestra.”

“One of the purposes of ‘Plastic Orchestra’ is to think about what it means to have these low-brow or silly instruments put in the context of this high-brow, high-culture idea of a classical music concert and orchestra piece,” Frohna said. “Western audiences in particular are really used to the sounds of trumpets and violins carrying the melody, so much so that we don't actually think about the sound of the instruments anymore. So when you suddenly have to pay more attention to the sound — because it’s unfamiliar — it changes the listening experience.”

Frohna started the process to develop her thesis in Fall 2019, assembling a group of students who would rehearse and ultimately perform her piece. Most of them had never played a plastic instrument, and some didn’t read music at all; many were longtime friends from the Brown Band, while some were strangers who became new friends. Together, the group explored the potentials, limitations and quirks of their instruments, ranging from $5 plastic alpine horns to gigantic flutes made of PVC pipe sourced from Etsy.

“I didn't start writing until people started experimenting with the instruments,” Frohna said. “The musicians would report back to me and say, ‘This note is super weird and we should maybe highlight that or hide it,’ or, ‘I'm not able to do this technique,’ or, ‘I found out this really cool sound you can do.’”

When she did begin writing, Frohna consulted weekly with Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Kristina Warren to talk through the creative process and ask for advice. She also had help from Associate Professor of Music Emily Dolan, whose Fall 2019 seminar on musical timbre heavily influenced her approach to writing for each instrument.

The student musicians rehearsed together just three times before the COVID-19 pandemic sent them home for the remainder of the academic year, scrapping Frohna’s plans for a group performance. Back in Los Angeles, Frohna had time to record just one of the six movements. Sitting on her bedroom floor, she played and recorded each instrument’s part separately, then stitched the tracks together using audio editing software. She also recorded orchestration guides for every instrument group, each a sort of miniature podcast that introduced the instruments’ sounds, ranges and roles in the orchestra.

The final product isn’t what Frohna imagined in the fall, she said. Nor was anything about her final semester at Brown or her graduation day, which took place virtually on May 24. Yet Frohna said she feels proud of her accomplishment and ready to celebrate. She’s confident that all she has learned at Brown, from the classroom to the stage to her bedroom floor, will help guide her toward a successful composing career.

“I've realized that music is not my entire life, but it's how I understand the world — so I'm really thankful that I'm here at Brown and that the music department has been so open and diverse,” Frohna said. “The department believes that a composer is more than a musician. A composer is a business person and a creator and a leader and a storyteller — a well-rounded humanitarian.”