Contemporary composers on Campus

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When most people think about music composers they think of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart — men whose works were completed centuries ago. Most people don’t consider the modern Mozarts who are composing works relevant to our day and age. These composers are using every sound at their disposal and several of them are right here in Provo.

Steven Ricks, associate professor of music, said though 19th century composition is important and influential, the composition program prepares BYU students to enter the musical conversation that is happening today.

“When we start with our Composition 1 class we don’t start with writing fugues in the style of Bach and we don’t start with trying to write a sonata in the style of Mozart,” Ricks said. “But we start with the idea: here you are in 2012 and you’re a composer. What does it mean to be a composer right now?”

Ricks said the program takes time to review many of the techniques employed by 20th century composers in hopes students will use those techniques in their own compositions. One such technique requires students to open their ears to a wide variety of sounds. When painting musical pictures, Ricks said his tool box contains a continuum of sounds that includes everything from less pitch-based sounds, to environmental sounds to pure tones being played by a violin and everything in between.

“All along the way our curriculum is all based on this idea of expanding the definition of music,” Ricks said, “of casting the net very wide so that it includes the whole world of sound as a possible resource that we can draw on to create things.”

Matthew Webb, a sophomore studying music composition, has taken this advice to heart. In some of his compositions he uses string instruments to make percussive sounds. Webb said that for him, searching for new sounds is natural.
“When you pursue extended techniques with different instruments a lot of times you’re just looking for new sounds, sounds that haven’t been heard before,” Webb said. “The natural curiosity of a child would be to find a new object and hear a cool sound that comes out of it and say,’This is neat let’s pursue this.’ Probably that’s how most musical instruments were developed.”
Webb said his professors at BYU have been central in opening his eyes to new music.
“Before coming to BYU and taking their classes and talking with them I had very little understanding of what sorts of new music was being created,” Webb said, adding that many of the faculty bring valuable personal experience as performers and composers.

“They help convey not only the data or the raw information about historical details, but they convey the spirit of a lot of the new thoughts and ideas that are present in contemporary music,” Webb said.

Composition majors aren’t the only ones on campus who are studying new music. Matthew Beesley, an organ performance major from San Diego, said contemporary music has been important in his education as well. Beesley said his time at BYU has helped him gain an appreciation for new music that he did not have before.

“My last semester of music theory was all contemporary styles and I remember before that I hated all contemporary music,” he said. “During that class I really learned to develop a love and appreciation for what was happening.”

Beesley, Webb and Ricks all said it is important for BYU students to open their ears and listen to new music. Beesley said his experience with contemporary music has enhanced his ability to step outside his comfort zone.

“It’s really helped me, I think in a very broad sense, even in other areas of learning, of just being able to accept that even if something is different it can still be beautiful,” Beesley said.

Students who want to learn more about contemporary music events on campus can join the new music email hosted by Professor Ricks. To join the list, email him at .

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