One day Brandon Harper just might compose music at the intersection of classical and jazz. The second-year CMPI percussion fellow is an elite youth musician in both genres. A recent audition earned him a promotion to Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra’s top ensemble, and this fall he will participate for a second consecutive year in Merit School of Music’s respected jazz program.
Brandon, a 15-year-old sophomore at Chicago’s Lincoln Park High School, enjoys discovering the overlaps between the two musical genres. His interests were reinforced this summer through two virtual music camps: Interlochen for classical music and DePaul University for jazz.
“Jazz and classical can work together by interweaving the harmonic language of jazz with the orchestration and instrumentation of classical,” he says. “Also, using compositional techniques in classical — how they use motifs and how music can tell a story — you hear that a lot in classical music. In jazz different kinds of chords can invoke a lot of storytelling.”
Brandon’s favorite part of his Interlochen experience overlaps with one of the things he loves most about CMPI, the opportunity to experience master classes with great professional musicians. “[Last March] we got to meet Courtney Bryan. What I learned from her,” he says of the pianist/composer from New Orleans, “is that anything you create can be a composition. It doesn’t have to be made with instruments. We did an exercise where we imitated sounds from the city, like an average day in the city. It was just to show you can get inspiration for composition from anywhere. I had never thought of being inspired by something like the environment.”
The inspiration for Brandon to begin playing music also came from an unusual place: a popular video game. “It was really mesmerizing playing Rock Band,” he recalls. “It’s almost as if you are that person; you are that guitar player, you’re that singer or drummer, playing “Free Falling” by Tom Petty.”
Brandon, though, was mostly the drummer — at least at first — his family recalls. He would bang away at the game’s drum kit while older sister, Lauren (now a freshman voice and music education major!) handled vocals. His mother, Indira Williams, enrolled Brandon, then a first grader, in an introductory percussion program and things began to leap forward. There were drum set lessons, playing in kid rock and roll shows, joining the elementary school band, and so much more. “I wanted to play clarinet like my sister, but I wasn’t patient enough to learn a whole new instrument, so I went back to percussion,” Brandon says. He then stumbled headlong into classical music when an acquaintance of his dad’s recommended he audition for CYSO.
What does Brandon hope to do after CMPI and high school? Not surprisingly, given his age and diverse experiences, he isn’t quite sure. But whether he goes on to conservatory or university, he hopes it leads him to a career in composition because, he says, “My number one thing in this world is to create new ideas, to go beyond what has even been thought about.”