Archive for Saturday, August 17, 1991


August 17, 1991


They may want to write the songs the whole world sings. Or they may want to write the score to the next hit film or musical.

Or they may want to write the symphony that orchestras want to play and classical music audiences want to hear.

They are the students studying composing at Kansas University in the department of music and dance. They share an urge to create with sound.

Both undergraduate and graduate students study composition at KU, under the tutelage of the music theory and composition faculty. The professors who teach composition include John Pozdro, Charles Hoag and Edward Mattila, along with band composer James Barnes.

KU composition students also will get the benefit of a Symposium on Contemporary Music to he held April 20-22 at the university. Hoag said student compositions may be performed during the event.

The undergraduate program entails four semesters of composition classes, along with requisite courses in theory and performance, Hoag said.

He said he has his own style of teaching.

"I TRY to require that they do a lot of melody," Hoag said. "We work on people's melodies every semester in the first part of the semester. The students could be writing for different media, but they still need to learn how to write melody. As they go along, they can learn to write two melodies together, which forms a two-part counterpoint.''

Last spring, two students won the Anthony Cius Jr. composition prize at KU: senior Melissa Brown and graduate student Komei Harasawa.

The two came to their calling in musical composition from very different backgrounds. For one, Brown grew up in Kansas City and Harasawa grew up in Japan. Also, Brown is a lifelong musician, and Harasawa is a relative newcomer.

"My mother graduated from KU with a music education degree, and she's been teaching music in Prairie Village and leading church choirs," said Brown in an interview shortly before her May graduation. "So that was my first exposure to music. I've been singing in the church choir since I was 9, and I've had violin and piano lessons off and on.''

HARASAWA DIDN'T have music lessons until he got to KU. He was supposed to study engineering on the graduate level, but he opted to puruse his dream in music, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in piano.

"My situation is very strange," he said in a May interview. "I graduated in Japan 10 years ago majoring in electrical engineering. I was supposed to come to KU for more engineering, but I ended up studying music. I didn't have any musical background. I never even took piano lessons. I recall when I graduated from high school I told my parents I wanted to be a composer, and my father said there was no way and my mother cried. They said go study engineering, but I never forgot the dream.''

THEIR STYLES are quite different. Brown said she has a preference for film music and has worked in electronic composition with Mattila, who is an electronic music composer. Harasawa, known to play jazz piano in local bistros and on stage, likes 20th-century composers and has a taste for Broadway musicals.

"I've composed much more like Bartok and Stravinsky, but I've been influenced by Debussy and Ravel very much,'' Harasawa said. "I know Dr. Hoag doesn't like it when I write like them.''

Brown said she's open to many musical styles.

"I'm very eclectic right now," she said. "In my recital I had a lot of chamber and piano music and some vocals as well, and I've studied electronic music with professor Mattila. I'd like to stay eclectic while I can learn more, and today you need to be flexible.''

Craig Comstock, who will be a senior this academic year, sees himself moving away from chamber music toward works for orchestras and avant-garde material.

"I've been influenced by weird, experimental music like (minimalist) Steve Reich," Comstock said. "I enjoy listening to the avant-garde, and I'd like to write more of that kind of thing.''

GENERALLY, undergraduates are expected to write smaller, chamber-oriented pieces, and graduate students are asked to move into more sizable pieces, Hoag said. But it's not a hard-and-fast rule.

Seniors are required to stage a recital of their work, as Brown did in the spring of '91, and Harasawa also recently held a recital for his pieces. The New Music Ensemble, a group led by Hoag, does perform student work, and the young composers said they frequently find musicians who want to play new pieces. But it's sometimes difficult for the composers to piece the necessary ensembles together.

"One player got sick the day before, so I had to find another player,'' Harasawa said.

But the performance is the ultimate test of the composition, when an interpreter takes the raw material and makes it music.

"REHEARSALS are a learning process for me," Harasawa said. "I can understand and change a piece when we're in rehearsal when I'm working with other musicians.''

Brown and Harasawa see different paths toward careers that use their training. During the spring, she was seeking employment with Walt Disney as an arranger, a job that would put her background in theory and electronic music to work.

"I really want to work with the new technology," Brown said. "That's why I want to go to Walt Disney. I also love films, so I'd like to be in a situation where I can learn about film music.''

Harasawa sees himself as a serious composer and teacher, and maybe even the composer of a musical.

"I don't think about making a living out of composing," he said. "In the future I'd like to teach and write, but I haven't thought about marketing.''

But music is something people do for love as well as money and college credit, as these young composers can attest.

"People in my sorority always ask me why I want to write music when it's so hard to make a living at it," she said. "But it's what I want to do.''

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