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What does UW–Madison sound like?

How two alumni developed the sounds behind the #UW175 anniversary video.

That was the question in Leo Sidran ’99’s mind after being asked to createthe score for a video celebrating the university’s 175th anniversary. For some, the sound of the UW is the scrape of Terrace chairs at Memorial Union or the beeping of a snowplow early in the morning. But for Sidran, UW–Madison is the marching band on Game Day. “That super Big Ten, very collegiate feeling is peak Madison,” he says.

The Latin Grammy– and Oscar-winning musician, composer, and podcaster leaned into what he describes as “the references that are part of a collective cultural understanding of what college sounds like,” and he began by creating new arrangements of “On, Wisconsin” and “Varsity.” After being sent a short recording of the UW Marching Band’s entrance on Game Days, Sidran incorporated the band’s iconic entrance beat into a loop that plays beneath the music. Using piano, trombone, and drums combined with light layers of electronics, Sidran was able to create reimagined versions of classic UW–Madison sounds.

As Sidran worked on the music, he had another familiar UW sound to keep in mind, the voice of actor André De Shields ’70. In his long career as a singer and Tony-winning performer, De Shields may be best known for his commanding stage presence and stately speaking and singing voice. He has different approaches for every kind of role, but the focus required for voice acting is different than what is needed when acting on camera or on stage. “When doing voiceover work, one has to imagine they’re the only sentient entity that exists,” he says. “I had to stay eyes on paper, voice not overly loud because I’m not in the theater where you have to project for upward of a thousand people. All the work is done quietly.”

Having collaborated with De Shields in the past, Sidran was also able to tailor the pacing of the music specifically to suit his trademark cadence. The final score fits Sidran’s original vision perfectly, arranged in four parts — not unlike those fall Saturdays he so fondly recalls. “Think of it as a football game,” he says. “The first quarter is ‘On, Wisconsin!’ The second quarter is ‘Varsity.’ The third quarter is this kind of innovation tech music that’s original, and then it ends with an arrangement of ‘On, Wisconsin!’ again.”

The artists met at a recording studio in New York City to record the final audio. With De Shields in the booth and Sidran on the other side of the glass in the control room, everything came together perfectly. “Everyone was on their marks,” De Shields adds, “just like the theater.”

Working together on this project, Sidran and De Shields were also reminded of just how connected their lives today are to the ones they had at the UW. “There’s a kind of Madison, UW sensibility that I brought with me throughout my life,” says Sidran. “I was encouraged, allowed to try a lot of different things at the UW, and to be a lot of different things.”

For De Shields, the UW represented a sense of belonging when he needed it most. “I discovered that I was at the right place at the right time, and that doesn’t happen very often in anybody’s life,” he says. “You always wish for it. You are either too early for it or too late for it, and then those moments come and it’s like, ‘Yes.’ That was a yes moment.”

Although the video might reflect on the past 175 years of UW–Madison’s history , ultimately, says De Shields, “it really shows how [UW–Madison] has changed, is changing, and will continue to change because of you.”

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