Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2010


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Sounding Off

Sounding Off
Composer Brahim Kerkour '02. Photo by E. J. Flack.

Alumni composers trace the evolution of their stylistic voices

By David A. Brensilver

It's true that while composers who studied at Connecticut College share that formative experience, their styles are as divergent as the so-called “classical music” repertoire itself.

Renée T. Coulombe '86, a San Diego-based composer, performer and improviser, majored in botany and minored in music at Connecticut College. She spent her junior year in Nantes, France, studying science and music.

“That was where I became a composer,” she says.

“I'd had a very long musical education before I heard (jazz musician) Ornette Coleman,” she says. Before that, Coulombe thought she was “insane,” “because everything that I heard in my head was so big and so complex. … It was a very long time before I learned that the music I heard in my head was acceptable — not only acceptable, but possible.”

Coulombe earned her master's degree in composition from Columbia University in 1991 and her doctorate from the University of California, San Diego, in 1998. Later, as an assistant professor at UC-Riverside, Coulombe says her students “were really the ones who showed me how divergent” one's creative interests can be.

Attending Burning Man in Nevada's Black Rock Desert pulled Coulombe from an academic approach to composition. “I have learned more about sound” from experiences like Burning Man than she did in academia, Coulombe says.

Coulombe, who recently left UC-Riverside, is the founder and artistic director of Improvised Alchemy Productions and Banshee Media, a vehicle for her own work. In March, she presented “Moksha,” an immersive event that featured electronic music, fire performances, a photography installation and a black-light interactive space curated by her ensemble Adaptable Girl Digital Collective. No longer does Coulombe present works to audiences in a traditional way. For her, “you are the audience.”

“Now I have pieces that come out and nobody knows how to classify them,” she says.

While Coulombe is charting a new creative direction, Kiara Hwang '09 is in the discovery stage. Like Coulombe, Hwang enrolled at Connecticut College to focus on the sciences.

She concentrated on biology as a freshman, and, the following year, switched gears to study philosophy. It was during her sophomore year that she decided instead to major in music, studying flute with Adjunct Professor Patricia Harper and composition with Arthur Kreiger, the Sylvia Pasternack Marx Professor of Music. She also worked with Adjunct Professor Peter Jarvis, who teaches percussion and directs the College's new music and percussion ensembles.

Hwang, who is in the first year of a graduate program at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where she's majoring in composition, knows that for many “it's difficult to survive” as a composer.

“Right now,” she says, “I try not to think about it.”

In May, Ithaca, N.Y.-based composer Antony Paasch '94 had two movements of a tuba concerto premiered by Adjunct Assistant Professor Gary Buttery and the Connecticut College Orchestra.

At the College, Paasch studied composition with former professor Noel Zahler.

Pointing out that Zahler is known primarily as a serial composer, Paasch says he dabbled in that tradition but figured out quickly that it wasn't for him. He says his music is more “accessible” to mainstream audiences and that composing, for him, is “a nice, creative outlet for a stay-at-home dad.”

“To say I've hit it big time would not be true,” Paasch says. “I just enjoy the creative process. … For whatever reason, I feel compelled to do this.”

Brian Field '90 says that virtually all the composers he knows supplement their incomes by teaching. And while he doesn't have a university job, and thus doesn't have the luxury of taking sabbaticals or having summers off, Field says he's “always looking for the next piece of music” to compose.

Field, a Fairfield, Conn., resident, majored in music and English literature at the College, studying composition with Zahler, piano with retired Professor Zosia Jacynowicz, organ with Professor John Anthony, and harpsichord and figured-bass realization with Adjunct Assistant Professor Linda Skernick. Field went on to earn his master's degree in 1992 from The Juilliard School, where he studied composition with Milton Babbitt — with whom Zahler studied at Princeton University — and his doctorate from Columbia in 1996.

Field was “following in Zahler's footsteps” when he graduated from Connecticut College. Studying with Babbitt, he says, reinforced his own notion that it's not the style in which one composes that matters, it's the underlying quality of the music itself.

Field, too, knows that being a composer isn't easy.
“Making a living as a composer … is virtually impossible,” he says.

A decade and a half ago, Field was teaching and doing some work for Boosey & Hawkes, a classical music publishing company, “running myself ragged and making no money at all.” Then, in 1996, he got involved in the Internet startup StarMedia with Fernando Espuelas '88, and later served as president and chief operating officer at VOY, which Espuelas founded in 2004. In 2007, Field started his own media consultancy, Olim LLC, and has recently been working as head of operations for Turner Broadcasting's New Products Group.

“That's kind of the day job, so to speak,” Field says.
Field graduated from the College just a year before Boston-area composer Chris Eastburn '91. Like Coulombe and Hwang, Eastburn's initial focus was not on music. While he concentrated on Asian studies during his freshman year, minoring in music instilled in him a deeper commitment to composition.

“That's how I was spending all my time,” Eastburn says.

Shifting his focus to music in his sophomore year, Eastburn's musical thinking was shaped by former Assistant Professor David Vayo. Eastburn grew up playing the guitar and admiring players like Eric Clapton. And Vayo, Eastburn says, was looking at music from a holistic perspective, which “really spoke to me.”

Between college and graduate school at Boston University, from which he received his master's degree in 1997, Eastburn worked as the music director at the Children's Theater of Maine, in Portland. That gig, while not lucrative, gave him experience writing music for “a very real-world setting.”

Today, Eastburn is the director of the Family Folk Chorale in Arlington, Mass., and spends his summers conducting the choir at Music at Port Milford, a chamber music festival and school in Milford, Ontario.

And while he is a working composer, director and arranger, Eastburn is not necessarily interested in how his music might be viewed analytically.

“The impetus for me really has to come from an emotional basis,” he says.

The impetus for Brahim Kerkour '02 is a curiosity about sound itself.

Like Eastburn, Kerkour, who earned his doctorate from Columbia earlier this year and lives in London, grew up playing the guitar. Kerkour's first compositions were for his high-school rock band. Over the years, he says, the music he wrote became “more and more dissonant.” When he got to Connecticut College, Kerkour says Zahler “led me down the rabbit hole … unveiled this world of sound I never knew existed.”

“In general,” Kerkour says, “I think about instruments as flexible, vibrating bodies.”

He thinks in terms of designing ecosystems of sound.
“It's very similar to … molecular gastronomy,” he says.
Aleksei Stevens '99, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based composer, has found success by creating a niche.

“I do live electronics,” he says — that is, “performing with samples and loops and effects … processing sounds live.”

His interest in “found sound” and “interactive electronics” can be traced back to the College.

As a student, “you don't really know what's out there yet,” Stevens points out. Professors tend to shape a young musician's thinking. Because Zahler, with whom he studied, had a “strong serial bent … that's the kind of music I ended up writing there.”

By the time he got to the Manhattan School of Music, from which he earned his master's degree in 2006, Stevens had started moving away from that style and “got really into Eastern European folk music,” which made him realize that “a scale's not the worst thing in the world.” By the end of his graduate studies, Stevens was once again moving in a new musical direction, and, these days, is mainly working with electronics and “interactive systems” that have some kind of “listening capability” and will “react based on an algorithm … with a player.”

Stevens says many of his peers at Connecticut College complained about how dated the equipment in the electronic music studio was, recalling a reel-to-reel tape machine and an analog modular synthesizer in the 1990s.

“I hope it's still there,” he says. (It is; analog synthesizers are used in electronic music composition classes, and the reel-to-reel is available too, in the College's state-of-the-art recording studio.) “I feel like I have such a strong understanding of what all these effects actually are because I had to spend so much time making them” — literally cutting and splicing tape or manipulating playback heads to achieve effects that today are a mouse-click away with digital editing software like Pro Tools.

Zahler “encouraged me to listen to a lot of music that I would not have listened to,” Stevens says. “There was a lot of really good grounding in how to think conceptually.”

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