Aurora Awakes – A Journey

Sometimes you have had a long week, perhaps a tiring day to cap it all off, and all you want to do is just come home, let all your worries go for an hour or two, and just do something that relaxes you. That’s exactly what I did this evening – come back home, throw down my backpack, and just put on some good old Aurora Awakes.

But this time, it was a little different. A few days ago, I’d learned to my great surprise that the full score of John Mackey’s Aurora Awakes had been added to the Northwestern music library’s collection! I had been wanting to see a paper copy of this score for quite a long time now and I immediately raced to the library to check it out. I hadn’t had the time to really open it up and dig into it until today, but man, am I glad that I went and got that score.

When I started the recording, I expected a few things as I often do when I listen to a piece with the score in front of me. I expected to find some things that I would never have noticed had I not been looking at the score, some things that I would not have expected to be notated as such, and some things that make me go “Ah, so that’s how you write that sound.” These are all reasons why I try to listen to my favorite wind ensemble scores with the score: it teaches me quite a lot. But this time, it was more than just the pockets on knowledge here and there. Aurora Awakes has always been one of those listening experiences that had a noticeable affect on me – sometimes calming me, sometimes exciting me, and sometimes instilling in me a sense of “man, I wish I could write like this.” This time, in a special way that I can’t quite describe, the listening experience was more of a journey than anything else. I felt like I was truly being enveloped by the music, and that I could begin to see glimpses of Mackey’s thoughts and intentions throughout the piece. Familiar melodies, motifs, and sections leaped out at me in a whole new light, and it was as if the score was speaking to me, saying “look at all these wonderful ways in which he has orchestrated us.”

I’ve never had a score listening experienced feel quite like that before. Perhaps it’s the relief after a long week, perhaps it’s because I just love this piece so damn much, I don’t really know. But it definitely felt special enough for me to have to sit down and write about it. I’m not sure if that’ll ever happen again, and that’s okay. Whatever the case, I’ll still keep on learning more and more every time I go through that piece. What I do know for sure is that these are the moments that make us say “this is why we do music.”

John Mackey, thank you for bringing this incredibly majestic work of art into the world. I wish I could write half as well as you do one day.

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.

It’s Good to be Back

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

– T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

A blog can serve you well when you’re in high school and nobody really listens to the music you write. But as I move on to bigger and better things here at Northwestern University, I thought it was time that I took things up a notch. So I bid farewell to Musical Creativity for a few months and spent the time upgrading.

Welcome to, which will now act as the center of my musical presence online. This will be the place where you can check out my latest works or continue to browse the blog that I’ve brought over from Musical Creativity. Check back soon for posts about my musical adventures here at NU. There’s a lot to catch up on!

A side note: I will keep Musical Creativity running, so that the links on the posts still lead you to the relevant page. Just bear in mind that you’ll see the page from my old blog.

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?

Trust Yourself

Learning to trust myself was one of the biggest lessons I learned from being a musician.

I took out my tenor saxophone for the first time in months today and did some noodling around. I started off with scales to familiarize myself back into the instrument, and things came back quickly. After jamming to some pep band tunes (my comfort zone), I decided to improvise with the tune Amazing Grace. I’d never really thought to improve on my saxophone before, since I’d always thought I “wasn’t good enough.” But lo and behold, with a little bit of faith, it turned out quite all right. With that boost of courage, I moved onto Ellington’s Don’t Get Around Much Anymore and improvised on that as well.

With a little bit of trust, I did something that I didn’t know I could do, and I had a lot of fun doing it. That’s music for you.

Maybe with some more practice, I’ll record some of these spontaneous practice sessions.

WISE – To Each Their Own

I’ve always struggled to find a method of note-taking that fit every aspect of my life. I’m not talking about note-taking for a physics exam or a calculus quiz: I’m talking about jotting down reminders to myself and ideas that come up throughout the day. Everyday note-taking.

I recently purchased a Nexus 4 as my first smartphone, and it has done wonders in making my life easier. I can now keep all my to-do lists, tasks, reminders, and homework in one place. Problem is, I don’t think even the newest of technologies will ever make a better substitute for pencil and paper when it comes to music.

I recently got a chance to read through a friend’s print journal, and I have to say it was a nice blend between scrapbook and journal. The engineer in me would probably call it an “artist engineering notebook.” Regardless of what I call it, one thing was clear: her journal was a place for all her project related musings. Everything from doodles drawn on sick days to glued pictures to hastily jotted down ideas; she did all her brainstorming and reflecting there. It made me wish that I, too, could have a pencil and paper medium where I consolidated everything about this project.

But to each their own: I chose to run a blog instead, and keep a separate composition notebook for my music. You see, unlike my friend and her trusty journal, my music isn’t just a WISE project: it’s my life. The personal, musical things can still go in my composition notebook, and what I want to share is written here on this blog.

And so it will be this way, or at least until technology sufficiently advances to digitize the pencil and paper too. For iPad users, that may be closer than you think.

Oh, and check out my aforementioned friend’s blog.

WISE – Brief Thoughts

I spent an extended period of time this evening trying to find works written originally for string orchestra that matched my composing style. It turns out that there are barely any contemporary classical works written for string orchestra.

This got me thinking about how difficult it was going to be to bring out my own unique voice in a string orchestra piece. I’ve found that my music sounds most like me when written for choir or concert band, which are very different from a string orchestra.

It’s going to be a unique and intriguing challenge to overcome; one that I will run into very shortly as I transition from brainstorming to choosing an idea and developing it.