Training Young Composers in Chicago
Launching the first Summer Composition Institute at Roosevelt University
We first met as a group in September 2016. Prof. Kyong Mee Choi initiated the meeting. We gathered in Stephanie Salerno’s office. The idea was simple: provide an opportunity for enthusiastic young composers to study composition in downtown Chicago during the summer. Provide a rich, intensive experience where students receive individual and group instruction every day. Introduce students to the worlds of electroacoustic, electronic, and acoustic composition. Open our campus to them: library, practice rooms, classrooms, labs and studios. Bring these bright minds to the Chicago Loop, just steps away from the dazzling waters of Lake Michigan.
This was the beginning of the first ever Summer Composition Institute (SCI) at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, which took place from July 17-21, 2017. The institute was a great success, as we welcomed six participants from Chicago and California. The participants ranged in level from high school to post-graduate, and this inter-mingling of perspectives and experiences made for a positive and fascinating week of creativity and discovery.
Dr. Choi, Associate Professor and Head of Composition at Roosevelt University, has long been an advocate for young composers. Each year she hosts the annual Young Composer Competition at Roosevelt, inviting pre-college composers to submit works. The application process is free, and the top prize-winning piece earns a cash prize and a performance in Roosevelt’s Ganz Hall.
One of her missions is to teach students about the expressive power of electronic and electroacoustic music. If you think about it, electronic music is a perfectly fitting form of expression for today’s young and emerging composers. We operate constantly with electronic devices and systems. The connectivity of social media represents a powerful mouthpiece for creative artists. Harnessing the power of technology to share personal and creative messages is an absolutely natural and appropriate path for young musicians to take.
Dr. Choi is a restlessly creative person: in addition to her composing, she is also a poet and visual artist. Her one-act multimedia opera The Eternal Tao is a sort of “Gesamtkunstwerk” for voices, instruments, electronics, video, dancers, and lighting. During its Chicago premiere, Dr. Choi displayed pieces of her visual artwork in the lobby of Ganz Hall. Her musical language embodies an impressive range of colors, gestures, and dramatic shapes; there is always a keen sense of form, direction, and wholeness in her music, with the depth and nuance of someone well acquainted with poetry and literature. A great example is a recent work for baritone and chamber ensemble on Hermann Hesse’s Im Nebel, performed here by Ricardo Sepúlveda and the Illinois Modern Ensemble. Here we find marked contrasts of texture (thin and pointillistic versus thick and imposing) and a vast dramatic range. I still can’t understand how she generated such volume and fullness of texture from this moderate number of musicians.
Under Dr. Choi’s watch, Roosevelt’s electroacoustic lab facilities have grown to two music studios and a Moog synthesizer studio. Our single-user studio, mainly for multi-channel work, boasts the following equipment: MOTU interface, Mackie 32-Channel mixer, 1202 mixer, Roland SP808EX, Tascam DA-P1, Marantz Recorder, Yamaha VL70m, Roland RS-S 64 voice, Sony CD player, DVD player, Samson mixer, Yamaha WX5 and CASIO MDI DH-100.
Our multi-user studio is intended for beginning and intermediate-level work. It is equipped with 4 iMac workstations (all with recording equipment), including the following features: Ensonic EPS, Korg KARMA, Edirol MIDI Keyboard, DBX Compressors, DBX DriveRack, Aphex661 Vocal Compressor, Lexicon MPX1, Korg Wavestation, Yamaha TX81Z, Mackie 1604 (VLZ), Tascam CD-D4000, Marantz PMD 320, Tascam DA20, Tascam 130, Denon DN D9000 and Denon X8000.
Finally, we recently renovated our early R. A. Moog modular synthesizer. Technician Mike Borish completed the restoration in fall 2016. (The system had remained hidden in storage for nearly 50 years.) There are two large systems in the Moog Synthesizer studio – the larger system containing 40 modules and the smaller one with 20 modules, which is a standard System 35 synthesizer. Here’s a very cool article about the restoration of Roosevelt’s vintage Moog system.
What we did during the institute
The cool part was that several of our SCI participants had had no experience with fixed media or electroacoustic music at all! Dr. Choi began on the first day of the Institute with a group lesson, introducing the basics of electronic music composition. The students received their assignment for the week: create a short piece for electronics lasting 2-3 minutes. Each student attended two 40-minute private lessons with Dr. Choi (taking place every other day). All of the participants, regardless of background or prior experience, dove in and completed this assignment! The new electronic works were premiered at our final concert on Friday afternoon.
And this is where I come in. While all of this was going on, I assigned our participants to compose a brief piece (2-3 minutes) for solo piano, which I would perform on the Friday concert. To achieve this goal, each student attended two 40-minute private lessons with me (alternating days with their electroacoustic music lessons). I worked closely with our composers, discussing piano technique and sonority, along with technical issues of counterpoint, harmony, and rhythm.
This means that each participant took one private lesson each day. The entire group also met together three times every day: once in the morning with Dr. Choi for a lecture on electroacoustic music, once in the early afternoon for a lecture with me, and once at the conclusion of the day for a group seminar on various topics (either sharing our own work, or discussing topics in the field of music composition). For Tuesday’s seminar, Dr. Choi and I presented our music to the students. On Wednesday afternoon, it was the students’ turn: each participant shared one completed piece during the seminar, describing their work and taking questions from the group.
For our lectures, we wanted to cover general topics on music composition that would spur discussion and introduce the students to new ideas, composers, techniques, and ways of thinking. The first day, I spent an entire hour lecturing on texture; later topics were form, orchestration, and career building. Dr. Choi lectured on musique concrète, electronic music, and live electronics. On the final day, we coordinated our lectures, both discussing contemporary trends in composition (Dr. Choi for computer music, and myself for modern classical music). In doing this, we accomplished our major teaching aims: providing detailed personal instruction and broad topical instruction, all while keeping each student busy, engaged, and productive. Not a day or hour was wasted.
It also meant that each student enjoyed a 2-hour unscheduled block of time each day, either in the morning (10-12) or the afternoon (2-4). During this time, students could make use of the CCPA Performing Arts Library, our practice rooms, the electroacoustic studios, or the Roosevelt University cafeteria. This unfettered time was essential for completing their electronic and solo piano assignments.
The success of the inaugural program relied heavily on Stephanie Salerno’s crucial work as Assistant Director of Outreach and Engagement at Roosevelt’s Chicago College for Performing Arts. There from the beginning, Stephanie guided the creation of the Institute by coordinating us faculty members with school facilities, administration, and other entities at Roosevelt such as marketing and web development. She drove recruiting and promotional efforts through flyers, emails, and outreach to Chicago-area pre-college music programs. She communicated with our participants and managed the application and enrollment process. And yes, she organized the closing post-concert reception. A week’s worth of focused work requires a year’s worth of focused preparation.
By far, the #1 piece of feedback we received was “we want this program to last longer!” And voilà, we have granted your wish! We are officially announcing the second Summer Composition Institute at Roosevelt University, expanded to a two-week format, on July 16-27, 2018. Applications are now being accepted: click here for the 2018 Institute website and application portal. We are excited to announce two esteemed guest instructors: pianist Winston Choi and violinist MingHuan Xu, Roosevelt faculty members and experts in contemporary music, who will meet with students each week to workshop new compositions. Tuition for the two week program is set at $800. Also new this year: student housing at the nearby University Center (2 blocks away) is available, for anyone wishing to attend from beyond the Chicago area.
My favorite part of the program was its hands-on nature. We got to hear two brand new compositions from each participant. Each student had chances to explore, ruminate, and speak up. We discussed, questioned, and debated many techniques and topics on composition: trends, styles, aesthetics, the performing arts industry, the role of the composer in society. The environment was welcoming, embracing, and challenging. I was deeply energized by this experience, and can’t wait to experience this again in July 2018.
copyright 2017 Edward (Teddy) Niedermaier
no reuse or redistribution without permission