Along with being a CMPI cellist, I have long held an interest in composing. When I was little, around age three or four, I would have lengthy, improvised jam sessions with myself. I still reference some of the ideas I came up with back then. I later developed a passion for playing and listening to modern classical music, and I knew that I wanted to emulate some of my personal favorites, like Caroline Shaw, Steve Reich, and Oliver Messiaen, in my compositions.
Last year, I participated in the composition seminar at Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra (CYSO). In a combination of weekly group classes and bi-weekly individual lessons, the teacher, Ben Hjertman, helped us both sharpen our theory and notation skills and develop our creative voices. Mr. Hjertman was very comfortable with any music that we brought to him, and he always had a good solution to whatever roadblock we were facing. I had been struggling with combining ideas and producing finished pieces, but under his guidance I completed Quartet No. 1 with its many motifs. Through this process, I developed the habit of finishing pieces, and since the seminar I have completed a few more. A couple of my pieces have debuted at concerts, including my cadenza for Violin Concerto No. 9 by the French composer of African descent, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, which premiered at the Queen’s Hall in London (October 2021).
One of the perks of the seminar was having our music recorded by the amazing ATLYS Quartet. Many composers will never have the privilege of hearing their music played on real instruments, so to have my first piece performed by such a prodigious group of musicians was a great opportunity. Because of the quarantine that was in effect at the time of recording, ATLYS recorded our works as part of their “Quilted ATLYS” series — a series in which all four members of the quartet recorded their parts separately and then compiled them into one video. According to ATLYS, “What began as a response to social distancing has blossomed into this uplifting project for us to continue to share the sound of music, love, and hope.” They posted my piece and others on their social media platforms, and I proudly reposted snippets of it on mine.
Watching everyone’s compositions go from basic ideas to the finished MIDI (computerized performance) to professionally recorded music was very encouraging to see. When we work by ourselves, we can easily feel overloaded or lose motivation. In a group setting, we can see that everyone else is going through the same struggles and successes, and all of us can keep each other going. Some of the students even chose to create collaborative pieces, which resulted in an interesting blend of different and sometimes opposing styles. Some students would consult with each other outside of class, which introduced new and interesting perspectives.
If anyone is at all interested in composition, I cannot recommend the CYSO composition seminar highly enough. If you feel like you are in a rut, the seminar will help to push you out of it. Even if composing is just something that you want to try out, the seminar is a great place to start.
Top: Jonathan Miller