“The students are winning everything!” said University Professor of Composition Augusta Read Thomas this past spring. She had recently received a lot of good news about composers—some now alumni—whom she and her colleagues have mentored at UChicago.

In late April, not long after music composition doctoral program alumni Eun Young Lee, PhD’11, and Timothy Page, PhD’18, were awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in music composition, the American Academy in Rome announced that PhD student Baldwin Giang was the recipient of the Samuel Barber Rome Prize, granting him “time and space to think and work” at the academy’s campus in Rome for the 2023–24 academic year. Thomas was also keen to point out that graduate students frequently add commissions to their portfolios, writing original works for new music institutions at home and around the world, from the Gaudeamus Foundation in the Netherlands to the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.

The composers had a chance to share their talents on campus on May 1, when the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition (CCCC), directed by Thomas, sponsored a spring composers’ concert at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. Several composers enrolled in the music composition PhD program—Giang; Maria Kaoutzani, PhD’23; Paul Novak, AM’22; Yuting Tan, PhD’23; Kari Watson; and Justin Weiss—wrote new works for two New York–based groups: Ekmeles vocal ensemble and Sandbox Percussion. Then they invited them to campus and organized their collaboration as part of the student-led event.

Speaking just before rehearsals began, Watson—who was named to the Washington Post’s 2023 list of 23 composers and performers to watch—emphasized how important it is to hone her vision of who she is as a composer through such projects. “If I was going to distill down some of my recent interests and also how my musical language has interacted with my academic pursuits here, this is a great piece,” she said, referring to her contribution to the concert, titled [of desire.

But the long process of sharing work can also feel unreal. Though it had not been premiered, [of desire won a BMI Student Composer Award in 2022. “I haven’t even heard it yet, which is crazy!” she said.

Because contemporary composition encompasses so many sonic possibilities and presentation styles, composers in training value few learning opportunities more than working with performers. By teaming up with expert musicians, composers learn how best to ensure the full realization of the music they imagine.

Student-led events also help composers learn to navigate the behind-the-scenes tasks of the creative life. Novak—also named to the Washington Post’s list of 23—says, “The other side is the organizational and logistic. We have a budget, but the whole point is that the students organize everything, and it gives us a huge amount of freedom.”

The University’s PhD composition program is designed to give students doses of creative freedom within a larger support structure, providing them with regular opportunities to exercise their musical and logistical acumen. While the CCCC houses the resident Grossman Ensemble—a “supergroup” of new music specialists from the Chicago area—graduate students are also tasked with inviting visiting artists for student-led collaborations, usually twice each year. The May 1 concert had been twice delayed because of COVID, however, resulting in extra logistical maneuvering— and a feeling of poignance when they finally got to make it happen.

Novak’s piece dream catalog dealt specifically with his pandemic experience. The text is based on imagery from dreams he’d had in its early days, which he had assembled into a list. “I love list poems. It’s one of my favorite formal devices where you have this restraint built into the structure, but it gives you an opportunity to just go off in these kind of crazy directions.”

He was also mindful of the joy of collaborating in person after so much time making do with virtual meetings. “There’s something very tactile about sound. You have to be literally with each other to feel that.”

The atmosphere at the May 1 concert was intimate, with the composers carrying out the last of their responsibilities for the student-led event: doing their best to ensure that the audience felt something, too. By highlighting the musical choices they’d made in their pieces and facilitating the event’s thoughtful unfolding, the composers followed through on their brief.

Giang, who had been designated as the lead coordinator among the six composers, acted as emcee, opening the concert with a warm welcome before playing a video about his own musical contribution, our chinatown, their chinatown. Over a map inked with concentric boxes, Giang explained how he constructed part of the music through locations, the vocalists intoning place names that would conjure diverse associations in the minds of listeners.

The rest of the composers followed suit, playing brief videos that not only offered insights into their process but also diverted the audience’s attention from the percussionists’ setup between pieces. The videos also helped the audience make connections between the relatively short works on the program, in which each composer’s distinctive craftsmanship was on full display through the individual choices they’d made about handling the same musical materials.

Generally, vocalists and percussionists might be imagined to inhabit opposite ends of a spectrum, with singers delivering flowing lines and resonant timbres as percussionists forge passages through crisp sounds and silences. The task of blending voices and percussion had given the composers an interesting compositional challenge. Each composer met it by orchestrating the ensembles’ forces differently, using subsets of each group and placing performers at different locations in the room. Though some use electronic sounds in their other work, this concert was all acoustic, with many of the pieces favoring a wide range of resonant or bell-like percussion instruments to complement the vocalists’ reverberant sounds.

Music department faculty members were there to support the students, along with many of their friends and peers. To close, Giang encouraged the whole audience to stick around, with conversation primed to continue a few blocks away at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap. Their work done for the night, the composers prepared to celebrate a long-awaited collaborative learning experience.

Photo Creds: 
Photo courtesy the Music Department