Personal loss, passion for music inspired Common Reading Program winner

Assembly Series kicks off with 'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: Books Make Readers'

First-year student Nick Massenburg-Abraham was not familiar with this year’s Common Reading Program selection “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” or its author, Dai Sijie. But he does know something about the novel’s central theme: loss.

“The ending elicited some very strong feelings for me,” said Massenburg-Abraham, of Bloomfield, N.J. “Though my life is very different from those portrayed in the story, I connected to the idea of losing someone suddenly and all of the confusion that comes with that experience and the longing to see that person again.”  

Student Nick Massenburg- Abraham
Massenburg-Abraham

Massenburg- Abraham transformed that sense of loss into the musical composition “Reflections in D Major,” which won the grand prize for the Common Reading Program contest. Massenburg-Abraham and other contest winners will have the opportunity to meet Shanghai-born novelist and poet Qiu Xiaolong, who kicks off Washington University in St. Louis’ fall Assembly Series at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12, in  Graham Chapel with a discussion of the novel and China’s Cultural Revolution.

Here, Massenburg-Abraham discusses his composition and his passion for music.

How did this novel inspire you to write your composition?

The creative process started in a personal place, but I also thought a lot about the historical context of the reading. I actually wrote the melody a long time ago when I lost a friend and an aunt in the same time span. After I wrote it, I left it alone for a long time. But when I read the story and learned of the opportunity to create a project to go along with it, I reworked the melody and created lyrics based on how I imagined the character Luo might have felt when reflecting on the relationship that he has lost.

You composed the piece in the tradition of the Chinese chromatic scale. Have you studied classical Chinese music?

Classical Chinese music has always been very beautiful to me, but I’m not trained in that tradition. I thought about the music that would have been appropriate at that time because, of course, during the Cultural Revolution, there was the suppression of anything that had to do with the West. The result features two flutes and a very strong piano line.

Why did you write a musical composition as opposed to an essay?

Music is something that has always allowed me to express myself most optimally. I’m an active songwriter and am part of songwriting and producing duo called The Mass of Gold. You can find us on Spotify, and later this year we plan to release a new LP, tentatively titled “Affirmations.” I love to sing and play the piano and the organ. I’m also self-taught on the tuba.

So are you planning a career in music?

I’m undecided right now. I’ve joined Cast n’ Crew as music director. But I also like politics, cultural issues, writing, filmmaking, marketing. There are a lot of things I’m interested in. That’s why I’m here. 


Lyrics to “Reflections in D Major”

As I look upon the world
I see many faces
But there’s none like yours
In any of these places.

I’ve been searching far and wide,
To fill the empty void you left.
For there’s nothing left,
But precious memories.

As I look up to the skies,
I look for traces of your image
But there’s nothing left in sight.
I wish you were here to tell me
Where you are.
But I look back on our times, together,
And I realize you’re still here,
By my side, forever.

Tell me where you are
So I can see you.

I hear your voice inside my heart,
It echoes all throughout my senses.
In a world without your wondrous soul,
I hear your voice.
It reminds me of a dream,
I had when we were together.
When I closed my eyes, and saw you,
And heard your voice
Inside my heart.

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