Historic Sounds: As CU Denver Turns 50, the University is Creating an Alma Mater to Honor Its Past and Celebrate Its Future
Whether backed by an 80-person orchestra, blared over loudspeakers, sung by a crowd, or soundlessly playing in our heads, many of life’s most memorable moments come with a soundtrack. A beat. A rhythm. A metronome that helps us relive memories again and again.
It is common for universities to have an alma mater—a school anthem that is played at games, commencements, and other shared moments—to add a musical component to major events. Now, as the university celebrates 50 years of student success, CU Denver is about to get its own.
A New-Old Idea
Inspired at the unveiling of the lynx statue on the Benson Terrace last year, Mark Rabideau, the College of Arts & Media’s Associate Dean for Faculty and Student Affairs and Associate Professor of Music & Entertainment Studies (DMA), wondered: What if, at moments like this, we had a song—an alma mater—to unify our voices? But what if it was different? Not a song based on a century-old rhythm, but one composed with our future in mind. Something that had student input. Something that looked at our past, spoke to the present, and laid out our hopes for the future.
With the support of Chancellor Michelle Marks and Provost Constancio Nakuma, Rabideau began assembling a team that includes Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Becca Stevens and Music & Entertainment Studies faculty member Andrew Pettit (PhD), to create CU Denver’s first alma mater.
In the Classroom
An important step in creating CU Denver’s alma mater began this fall—in the classroom. Pettit and Stevens are teaching Music in Culture, a perennial class that explores genres, history, styles, and artists to understand how music can be a tool for social change and also an instrument for oppression. “The students are learning the power that music can play in not only telling our history, but in unpacking complex stories,” Rabideau said.
This semester, though, the class of 65 students, which is split into two sections, is focusing on social justice, protest movements, identity, and the social history of CU Denver and the Auraria campus—all while contemplating the legacies of alma maters and how CU Denver’s could be different. The course has included lectures on apartheid music and lyric-writing assignments using family photographs. Each student was also required to attend a symposium about the Auraria neighborhood and displacement. “I want students to walk away with a sense of the importance and power of music in society,” said Pettit. “And how it’s about more than just entertainment; understanding the role of music in culture is critical for understanding how we operate as a society.”
Finn O’Sullivan is a junior, singer/songwriter major taking the course. “I think it’s easy to just learn about your country and your country’s background with music,” O’Sullivan said. “But it’s so much bigger than that.” The course’s emphasis on supporting the development of the alma mater makes those lessons more intense. “Alma maters are around for a really long time,” she said. “So, we’ve been talking in class a lot about this idea of how do you create something that’s timeless and something that addresses the history of your school…and also be something that is relevant years and years down the line.”
For an upcoming assignment, O’Sullivan is interviewing past and current students about what CU Denver means to them and will use their words to create new lyrics—a format she often uses to express big ideas. “I think that art is such a beautiful thing that so many people can connect to in different ways.”
Putting It All Together
The course will culminate in each student authoring lyrics to inspire CU Denver’s alma mater, which Stevens will use as inspiration to create a composition. In February, internationally known musician Shelbie Rassler will create three different arrangements of the song so that the Lynx community can begin to learn it. And, finally, everyone will have an opportunity to join together to sing the alma mater when it is performed at the Spring 2023 Commencement.
That moment—inspired by community and informed by students—will cap off the project, but the alma mater will continue to create shared experiences. “Music is often cited as a universal language,” said Rabideau. “If this were true, then we should lift our voices to unpack our complex history and address the challenges of our day. No movement has been won without an anthem. Let our anthem be one of hope, inclusivity, justice, and civility.”