Illumination – Performed by the Contemporary Music Ensemble

The Contemporary Music Ensemble at Northwestern played a piece I wrote!

The concert was on May 5th, almost a month ago, so this post is a little late, but I definitely wanted to discuss the experience. I knew that I would be writing for this ensemble since around this time last year, but of course like a true college student I didn’t start working on the piece until about a month before the deadline. Turned out not to be the greatest plan since my spring was loaded with other music that I had to write for my senior recital and a reading for the Symphonic Wind Ensemble, but I managed to finish the piece and submit it in time.

The rehearsals were a great experience, as they always are, and I learned a lot – I say that for every rehearsal of my music, but it’s true! This one was a bit different, I must say, since it was the first time a major Bienen ensemble put on a work of mine at a concert. Moving up in the world! It was an absolute delight to work with conductor and friend Taichi, who shaped my piece wonderfully.

The main takeaways from the experience was not, however, during the rehearsal process. It occurred after the concert, when everyone was still milling about the concert hall. Out of nowhere, someone I had never met before came up to me and told me she “absolutely loved” the piece. As a composition student who studies in a school of music, constantly surrounded by friends, it had been a very long time since a complete stranger had told me they loved my music. It felt great, and reaffirmed the feeling that hey, maybe I can do this.

A bit afterwards, as I was congratulating Taichi, I had to fortune of finally being introduced to Maestro Yampolsky – the director of orchestras at Northwestern. He’s quite a notorious figure in the world of Bienen, and I hadn’t expected to meet him in this context, so I was quite intimidated at first (what if he hated my music?). But as it turns out, he really liked it! That was just such a nice unexpected addition to the night that once again helped lift my spirits.

Overall, I’m extremely glad I had the opportunity to write for such a great group of musicians. Here’s hoping that I get another chance next year!

Landscapes Recording

Landscapes recording is up! I’m very proud of this work that I was able to bring to life with a group of incredible musicians. You can find it here:

Program Notes and Ensemble:

Landscapes (2017)

Landscapes is in part a summation of my experience here at Northwestern and in part a love letter to the world of wind ensemble music, both of which have contributed largely to my persona and have nurtured me in times of need. Each movement was titled after a location that has inspired or resonated with me in some way. Each location was chosen to represent a certain aspect of my time at Northwestern.

I. Route 13 (Streetlights Highway at Night)
The titular highway is one that runs through my home town of Ithaca NY. It traverses from the heights of uptown, where I spent most of my formative years, to downtown, where my high school lies. This highway sits directly on the East side of the valley and is flanked by the beautiful Cayuga Lake. Its steepness allows for some beautiful views of the lights of Ithaca at night. However, the scene that mesmerized me the most is not the glittering lights of the city itself, but rather the regular and rhythmic visual created by the streetlights as I remember them during my thoughtful drives just before coming to Northwestern. This movement represents the beginnings of my college experiences. I tried to capture the excitement and wide-eyed optimism that I felt during my first year as I explored the newfound opportunities and freedoms. Quotes of the Ithaca High School Alma Mater can be heard in snippets, composed by friend and colleague Michael Stern.

II. The Mountains
My first trips to the west coast can be directly attributed to my involvement with the band program here at Northwestern. The majesty and awe of witnessing true desert mountains up close for the first time was a powerful experience. With this movement I hope to convey the strength and resilience of the friendships and other interpersonal connections I have cultivated throughout my time at Northwestern, which I hope will keep as steady as those very mountains. I dedicate this movement to the brothers of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia and their unyielding support.

III. The Cold, Dark Lake
For all its opportunities and vitality, the Northwestern campus can sometimes become a difficult and stressful place. Many students struggle with academic and social pressures that can often become overwhelming. It is a side of college not frequently discussed, yet extremely important to viewing the experience as a whole. This movement is my attempt at depicting some of my own struggles in this area. It is largely inspired by Lake Michigan, which during the day, can appear so calm and beautiful, yet become a cold and dangerous vastness at night.

IV. Stargazing from Skyscrapers
This movement is inspired by “The First Poem in the Imaginary Book” by Sarah Kay and “The Old Astronomer” by Sarah Williams, and is dedicated to Lauren Barmore. It is a recomposition of my previous piece “Stars of the Old Astronomer.”

V. Interlude
This movement serves as a short interlude, referencing much of the material from the first movement. This movement serves as my connection to the musical aspects of this university, by quoting melodies from The Waa-Mu Show and the university Alma Mater.

VI. The City of Lights
There is an image that is perhaps the most strikingly poignant visual that I have witnessed in the past four years, which has seared itself into my memory. When driving Southwest on Illinois I-55 just after crossing the Des Plains River, most signs of civilization disappear almost as far as they eye can see. At night, this portion of the drive is surrounded by complete darkness, with the resounding exception of an incredibly beautiful array of glistening lights situated to the East of the highway. The large complex of yellow and orange lights and illuminated pipes on the backdrop of hazy smoke and pitch darkness resembled a city, alive and filled with hope. I remember being transfixed at the sight through the window of the back seat. I later learned that this was an oil field – the juxtaposition of the industrial and gritty reality of the place during the day against the majesty of the sight at night only added to the striking nature of that memory.

With this final movement I hope to capture the hopeful yet uncertain feeling that I have towards my future after Northwestern, and all of the complex emotions that accompanied my fourth year.

Conductor
Joon Park

Flute
Jane Carpenter
Julia Clipper
Christine Kim
Nate Pham

Oboe
Jasper Igusa
Dallas Turner

Clarinet
Haley Kost
Victoria Lynn
Emily Manheimer
Jose Martinez
Theo Mavrakis
Jazmin Yuen

Bass Clarinet
Jintae Park

Bassoon
Katie Muñoz
Danielle Pindar

Saxophone
Leo Aguilar
Janos Csontos
Steven Liu
Aidan Manaligod
Karen Zhang

Trumpet
Joe Brozek
Jennifer Hepp
Sean Whitworth

Horn
Scott Beck
John Girotto
Ian Shaw
Helen Wargelin

Trombone
Kenton Campbell
Sean Holly
Aneesh Kumar
Lena Piazza-Leman

Euphonium
Matthew Kundler

Tuba
Sander Schierer

Bass
Haley De Boom

Percussion
Tarun Bellur
Austin Busch
Issac Frank
Thomas Wolff

Recital of Gratitude

Wow.

Simply wow.

I still am still processing the fact that my recital just happened – not only happened, but the fact that so many of my friends, family, and mentors came out to listen to what I had prepared. It’s absolutely crazy to think that an undergrad could get a wind ensemble of almost 40 music majors together and rehearse/conduct them in a piece that he himself wrote. I still can’t quite believe that I was able to pull it off.

I’m no newcomer to setting a high bar for myself, but what an ambitious undertaking that was. And after the recital went as smoothly as it did, I am absolutely overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude. I simply cannot express in words how thankful I am to so many people. I actually couldn’t go to sleep last night because of the blanket of feeling that comforted me, knowing that I have friends who support and care about me, parents who love me, and people who enjoy my work. I have never in my life felt such a tide of emotion – still high from the happiness of it all, so thankful, so glad.

A few people deserve some special thanks, so here they are:

First and foremost my parents, without whom I would not be able to attend this incredible institution of fine musicians. They flew all the way out from Ithaca to see my recital and set up the reception! I thank them from the bottom of my heart for their constant support.

To all of the players who played not only in the Landscapes ensemble but also in the Oboe Concerto – it was an honor and a privilege to work with you all. You guys are all amazing musicians and if someone told me musicians of this caliber would be playing my music just three years ago, I would not have believed them. I am so thankful that they were patient with my conducting as I learned on the podium, and thus I, in turn, was able to grow tremendously as a musician.

A million worlds of thanks to DaJuan B, who supported this crazy undertaking from the very beginning and taught me how to be a better conductor – without him I would not have been able to put the Landscapes ensemble together, nor rehearse them. Thank you for giving me the confidence to step onto that podium and believe that I could do this. You absolutely did not have to spend so much of your time and effort being at all the rehearsals, helping set up, and so much more, but you did anyway and it means the world to me.

Sarah K. – without you, the Oboe Concerto would not have happened. Thanks a million for putting together that ensemble. I probably would have lost my sanity if I had to put together both ensembles myself.

Thomas W. and Austin B. – We had a difficult time organizing the percussionists but you guys stepped up and put the section together, so thank you for that. Austin, thank you for helping prepare those parts and being so supportive!

Jasper I. – Thank you for championing my work! I’m so honored to have such a great oboist perform my concerto. You are such a positive delight to work with, and I hope to be able to again before I graduate.

John G. – Thanks for always keeping my mood up and for all those encouraging words. I was so glad to have you as a part of the ensemble and thanks for always being willing to help set!

Daniel C. for giving me many of the resources I need to put this recital together – thank you for being there, it means a lot that you would attend!

To all my brothers in Phi Mu Alpha that came out last night – you guys are all incredible peers that inspire me every day. It meant the world to me that you all supported my work.

Scott B. My friend and brother, who’s been there with me from day 1 of college… it is so fitting that you would be the cornerstone of my senior recital. It would have been a crime if I didn’t ask the one band geek that can match me for my wind ensemble geekdom to play for a wind ensemble piece I wrote. Without you, in so many ways, this piece would still just be an idea. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you’ve done for me.

And of course, all of my mentors along the way who have made me who I am today, especially my composition teacher Alex Mincek for supporting me in this undertaking even though he knew it would be an ambitious challenge, and my high school band director Nicki Zawel, who has always been an incredible inspiration in the world of music.

If you weren’t able to attend, you can find the recital recording below. Hope you enjoy!

First Rehearsal for Senior Recital – Check

Well… that happened.

It really is a privilege and an honor to be at Northwestern university, where an undergraduate composition student can decide to put on an wind ensemble piece on his senior recital and actually make it happen. It’s still a bit hard to believe – that I could stand in front of a group of incredible talented musicians and rehearse them through a piece of music I wrote. I’m just so incredibly thankful and I feel so fortunate to be supported by so many great friends.

The first rehearsal for my wind ensemble piece (to be performed at my senior recital next weekend) went pretty well. We were able to run through the entire piece (all six movements) in the first half, and was able to hit some trouble spots more specifically in the second half. Thanks to a conductor/teacher friend of mine who actually does this stuff for a living, I had some great conducting guidance. I learned a lot just today, not only about what I can actually do as a musician but also about the things I need to improve (being expressive while conducting mixed meter is hard!). On the composing side, I feel like I’m starting to get a much better grasp of what wind ensemble writing really is. This piece is by far the longest piece of music I’ve written (if you count all the movements together), and I feel like I have grown so much as a composer in the process.

And the best part… there’s still SO much more learning left to do! Two more rehearsals until the recital. Hope you’ll join us!

Claire Chase Residency

Renowned flutist Claire Chase is coming to Northwestern! In fact, she is doing a series of residencies over the course of this school year. Now, why would a flutist would be of interest to me? Because she is a pioneer of new music and has invited the Northwestern composition studio to join forces with the Northwestern flute studio in writing new works for flute. I’m excited to be a part of this collaboration not only because it will be a new experience for me that will force me to work more closely with a musician than ever before, but because Claire Chase will essentially be a mentor for both studios throughout the process.

Seeing her talk about and perform the pieces she has so far commissioned as a part of her Density 2036 project was inspiring and captivating. Her command of the flute, the bass flute, and its extended techniques were extremely impressive. There was a question that was asked during the composition colloquium today that addressed her choice of “great, defining works” for flute throughout history: she was asked to define what “greatness” is in her opinion. While never answering the difficult question directly, she directed the question back at the person who asked it, who replied that greatness, to her, were the pieces of music that stood the test of time. This was why she was curious of Claire’s definition of “greatness” in the first place, or in other words, how does Claire know if a new piece of music is “great?”

The reply resounded within me: (paraphrased) “That’s not our job to decide. That’s history’s job. That’s the job of some future musicologist or the audience. We can be a part of that conversation, but it’s not our job to say what is great. It’s our job to make (new pieces).”

My immediate reaction was that of calmness, as if someone had told me they’d solved a problem I’ve been anxious about for years. Because in a way, she had. While my first and foremost incentive to compose is to serve as my emotional outlet, I’ve always wanted to make my music great. I mean, who doesn’t? Don’t all composer wish for their music to stand the test of time? But as history teaches us, many famous figures throughout the years have not known their fame; their works did not become known until after their passing. That’s all we can do. That’s all I can do. Just to make what music I can and hope for the best. It shouldn’t be about making the greatest piece of music in history, although that can be a noble goal to some.

I’m excited for Claire’s recital tomorrow, and needless to say, I can’t wait for her to come back for the rest of her residencies here.

Lack of Composing

Some people get this feeling if they haven’t worked out in a while. Some people get it when they haven’t read a captivating novel lately. For some, it’s the lack of a good bike ride or run. For everyone, it’s a something a little different, but everyone sometimes gets that feeling of emptiness in your life, when you haven’t had time to do something you really love.

Maybe it’s because it’s my emotional outlet, but I always feel it when I haven’t composed it a while. The thought of “oh, it’s been too long since I wrote music” inevitably creeps up on me anytime that I’ve been away from my keyboard for too long, whether there are other distractions in my life or not.

For one, I think it’s a good thing; it tells me that 1) I have an emotional outlet, and 2) I enjoy doing something enough to miss it subconsciously.

Well, time to find some inspiration.

The Dual Degree Journey

Now, when I graduate from Northwestern University four (that’s right: four, not three) years from now, I’ll have two pieces of paper to frame, not one.

This means that not only will I have to pay an absurdly large sum of money for an extra year, but I’ll also have to spend twice as much money on diploma frames than most of my fellow graduates.

As you may have figured out by now, I was accepted into the dual degree program in Music Composition and Physics. This means I’ll be receiving a BM in Composition and BA in Physics when I graduate. And as pretentious and cynical as I may have sounded, I am truly grateful for the opportunity that this dual degree program gives me. In fact, grateful is an understatement; the magnitude of it all hasn’t hit me yet. I still wake up in the morning and have trouble believing I’m a “music major.”

And the quotes matter. Not so long ago, being a “music major” was something that I thought would instill some great change inside my very soul and would make me feel like a musician to the core. But nothing has changed. Does that mean I’ve been a “real musician” all this time? Next year, I’ll be taking all the courses that every single “real music major” doing their BM would take. Now, this field of study is no longer something that I revered in high school as an untouchable honor. Back then, I was certain I couldn’t be a music major. To be one you had to be able to push yourself to practice every day. You had to be disciplined, you had to manage your time well, and you had to have musical skills that left your peers in the dirt. I didn’t qualify for any of that. The words “music major” didn’t even sit in the same shelf with words like “physics” or “engineering” or “business.” Those two words, even though I didn’t quite realize it at the time, were being crowned and given their own throne in some corner of my brain.

But here I am, now a real music major. There aren’t any quotes around that phrase, nor are there any myths about not being good enough or it being something that’s not for me. I am a music major, and apparently, some qualified and experienced faculty in one of the most prestigious musical institutions in the world think I’ve got at least half a shot at being a decent composer.

You bet your firstborn child that I’ll put forth every inch of effort I have within me to not let them down.

Leaps and Bounds (Stories from Northwestern, Part 5)

It seems my thirst for musical growth cannot be quenched.

I began the year as an excited freshman student, eager to take in all the knowledge that this prestigious institution had to offer. By the end of my first fall quarter, I had declared a physics major and a music composition minor.

But it turned out to be that a minor simply didn’t cut it. I wasn’t getting the rigorous musical education that I had hoped I would get alongside my physics education. In particular, the music theory , keyboard, and aural skills classes were out of my reach, which I knew would be crucial to improving my compositions. So I applied for the BA in Music with a concentration in composition.

With the help of the wonderful Undergraduate Assistant Dean of Music, I sent in a portfolio to be reviewed by the composition faculty. The portfolio was accepted and I was happy to be able to start taking music major courses in the Bienen School of Music.

That didn’t last long either. I guess I saw this coming a long ways off, just as you know you have to do your laundry at some point as you watch your laundry hamper fill up. What tipped me over the edge, however, was a short conversation at work with a friend of mine who is a sophomore Composition major. I asked him a few questions about the BM degree and from his answers, I decided that it was doable if I planned to follow the five-year dual degree track. I realized that this was something I’ve wanted all along, I’ve just been denying to myself the reality of having a chance at achieving it, just as I too often do to myself.

So now, as the spring quarter overwhelms me with its workload, I’m tackling the task of building yet another portfolio. But this one’s special. I’m putting in more care and more effort than I ever have to any application or portfolio previously. I think this just naturally stems from how much I want to be accepted into this program.

All I can do now is put my best foot forward and see what happens.

Composing Block

Maybe it’s because I was just never meant to write piano pieces, maybe it’s because this piece is for someone important, or maybe I’m holding my music at too high a standard, but I just can’t pump out this piano piece I’ve been meaning to write.

Inspiration seems to be far and few between during these hot summer days. O Muse, where have you gone?