Student Composers Share Thoughts on Inaugural Year of New Music Initiative

November 14, 2016

This Fall, the Harvard Choruses introduced their New Music Initiative. Made possible by a generous contribution to support the creation of new music by Harvard students and the exploration of new music on campus by the Harvard Choruses, the Initiative aims both to establish a comprehensive program devoted to nurturing undergraduate composers and to create new works for choral ensembles through commissions, competitions, and residencies. The Initiative seeks to build upon Harvard’s reputation as an international leader in advancing the choral tradition through the creation of new work and as a leading collegiate training program for students interested in choral composition while providing a transformative and essential part of the music program at Harvard. As the Initiative develops, it will include new commissions for the Choruses and workshops, coachings, and performances of student compositions by an annual professional vocal ensemble in residence.

This November, residencies by Dr. Robert Kyr and the Antioch Chamber Ensemble marked the completion of the Harvard Choruses’ New Music Initiative’sNew Music Concert Program Cover inaugural year. A performance by Antioch that featured world premieres of seven Harvard student compositions was the culmination of a six-month educational process, led by Dr. Kyr, Harvard alumnus (Ph.D. GSAS ’89) and Professor of Music at the University of Oregon. Dr. Kyr has devoted a great deal of his life’s work to mentoring young composers and has himself written prolifically for choral ensembles. In four separate visits to Harvard, he guided the students through their compositional work, beginning with the selection of text, working constructively throughout the summer in giving feedback on several drafts, and providing direction on both creative and notational aspects of the students’ work, while meeting in private and group lessons at every stage.

“The freedom that Dr. Kyr gave us throughout the creative process was invaluable -- it allowed me to compile a text that inspired me personally, and write music that did not compromise on my individual style and voice,” said Eleanor Bragg ’19. “Dr. Kyr supported this freedom with concrete teachings on how best to fit music to a text, how to write comfortably and naturally for voices of different ranges, and how to create a score that is as clear to the performers as possible.”

The unique opportunity the New Music Initiative presents for Harvard student composers was not lost on those who were a part of this inaugural year. Karen Christianson, ’17, described her work with the Harvard Choruses’ New Music Initiative as “one of the highlights of my Harvard experience” and “a rare opportunity for undergrads…This experience allowed me to rediscover my creative voice and it has truly inspired me to continue composing choral works.”

Ari Korotkin, ’17, shared that it is “a rare privilege for any college-aged student to be granted something as rewarding as this program,” receiving “the unique opportunity not only to write for chorus—which I had never done before—but also to work closely throughout the process with a caring advisor…whose personally vested interest in our success was always apparent.” Fraser Weist, ’18, said that the New Music Initiative “was one of the best opportunities I’ve been afforded during my time at this university.”

While few undergraduate student composers have the opportunity to coach their compositions with a mentor like Dr. Kyr, fewer still have the chance to hear their pieces performed by a top-flight professional ensemble like the Antioch Chamber Ensemble. In recent years, Antioch has earned a glowing reputation for its pitch-perfect and expressive interpretation of modern music, and the singers provided an unprecedented educational experience for the student composers in addition to their readings and performances of the new works. “It was a privilege to have my work read, workshopped, and performed by an amazing professional group such as the Antioch Chamber Ensemble, who treated the work with such sensitivity and care,” said Sean Rodan, ’17. Sam Wu, ‘17, was “grateful for the lessons that can only be learnt from a world-class chorus. The ensemble was incredibly detail-oriented…[and] asked technical questions that had larger musical ramifications, [allowing] me to gain a deeper understanding of choral writing.”

As the Initiative grows into its second year, it aims to nurture all of Harvard’s student composers, including those aspiring for professional careers in music as well as those who compose as an avocational pursuit. Michael Cheng, ’19, shared that his work with the Initiative “was an invaluable experience that allowed me to grow significantly not just as a composer but also as a person.” The opportunity to combine texts, new music, devoted mentors, professional ensembles, world premiere performances, and community audiences for new work will continue to make the New Music Initiative an important part of Harvard’s arts and cultural life.