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Juilliard-trained composer Brian Field ’90 isn’t dead. So his trip to Conn enabled students to do more than perform “dead people’s music.”
By Amy Martin
hen Brian Field ’90 came to campus this spring to work with Conn’s choral students, he brought his considerable talent and more than 40 years of experience composing a wide variety of music.
But he also offered the students something else: the chance to work with a living composer.
“It was an opportunity for them to ask questions and to work through the process with someone who went to Conn—and to not just sing dead people’s music for a change,” he said.
In April, the Connecticut College Camerata and Chorale students performed two of Field’s pieces, “Lauda anima mea dominum” and “Let the Light Shine on Me,” at their annual spring concert, accompanied by Eun Joo Lee and directed by Visiting Instructor of Music Rachel Feldman. Field, whose compositions include solo acoustic, chamber, ballet, choral, vocal, electroacoustic and orchestral works for television and stage, was in attendance.
Field said working with the students also gave him the opportunity to debunk the notion that, unlike the composers of today who largely work on commissioned pieces, famous historical composers “were geniuses working in some isolated fashion.
“That’s really a more modern-day conceit. You look at like Haydn, Bach, and really all the composers before them, and they were writing music on demand. It was for a purpose, for a patron,” he said, noting that if a prince asked for a flute piece, for example, the composer would write a flute piece.
“Music composition has always been more of a practice and craft and less about sitting around waiting for some inspiration to strike.”
Field’s first clients were his neighborhood friends. From the time he was very young, Field would play a neighbor’s piano, improvising music as the other children danced around or acted out a scene. He began formal musical training at 8 years old and started to write down his original works. He worked with a mentor in high school, and then decided to attend Conn, where he could pursue his interest in music as well as English literature. He double majored in the two subjects, while also hosting a radio show on WCNI and editing both The College student newspaper and its companion publication, the Voice Magazine.
“It was a great experience to be able to write and to perform, but also to really explore other interests outside of music,” he said.
Field continued his musical studies at Juilliard, where he was a student of Milton Babbitt and earned a master’s degree. He then earned a Ph.D. from Columbia. It was at Juilliard that Field says he truly understood the value of his nonmusical training.
“Most of the conservatory students went to a conservatory for their undergraduate studies, too. They were fantastic musicians, but if you asked them about anything else outside of music, there was nothing there,” he said.
“A lot of the inspiration I draw from is nonmusical. It’s literary; it’s through visual imagery; it’s through things that are happening in the world.”
Recently, Field collaborated with the chair of the Chapman University Department of Dance, fellow Conn alum Julianne O’Brien Pedersen ’88, on a dance piece she was choreographing.
“She had a vague idea about what she wanted it to be about. She would feed me scraps of imagery she was thinking about, and then I would write a minute of music here and 30 seconds there and we would go back and forth,” Field said. “It was a fun project.”
Field is now collaborating with pianists from around the world to raise awareness about the impact of climate change.
“Climate change affects everyone on the planet. And the impact is going to be such that if we don’t start doing things—significant things—in the very near future, we’re all going to be in a pretty bad place in a very short amount of time.
“It has become such a politicized issue that people don’t even want to have a discussion. I really looked upon this as an opportunity to engage people in a way that might not be so polarizing,” Field said.
Working with fellow Julliard alum and pianist Kay Kyung Eun Kim, Field composed “Prayers for a Feverish Planet” for solo piano. The first movement, “Fire,” is a reflection on the forest fires raging in the American West on an increasingly alarming basis. The music begins with a “spark” that flickers and spreads and then begins to rage loudly across the register. The second movement, “Glaciers,” uses slow, ponderous movements sporadically interrupted by rapidly falling, thundering episodes to depict the breakdown of glacial ice. The third movement, “Winds,” is a virtuosic finale that begins with running winds that become increasingly intense and hurricane-like.
Kim premiered the work this spring at Steinway Hall in Seoul, Korea. More than a dozen other artists have also signed on to the project from around the world, and performances are planned in the U.S., Brazil, Greece, France, Austria, the United Arab Emirates and North Macedonia. Individual pianists can also request the scores, and Field has already fielded more than 300 requests.
“The idea is to create a global movement that is kind of drip-fed over time. Eventually, in perhaps a year or two, I hope we can take it to a much more formal multi-city event that isn’t limited to one piece or limited to the piano, but music more broadly that could continue that broader message of the impact of climate change,” Field said.
Like all true artists, Field is constantly evolving, and he sees each new commission and collaboration as an opportunity to grow. He has won numerous awards, including a McKnight Foundation Fellowship, the Benenti Foundation recording prize, a Briar Cliff Choral Music Competition first prize and a Victor Herbert ASCAP Young Composers’ Contest first prize.
Yet, as he put it, “There is no ‘made it.’
“It’s always ‘making it;’ it’s an ongoing process. But I’m proud that I’ve been able to keep the momentum going,” he said.