July 17, 2020

Young Composers Program Immerses Students in the World of Creating New Music

Students in CIM alumnus Gabriel Novak's (lower right) Young Composers Program film scoring class.

Imagine being a teenage composer and having your work performed by a professional musician for the very first time. There’s nothing like hearing a piece played by someone who can interpret every nuance of a composition that has your blood, sweat and tears all over it. 

At the conclusion of one week in June every year, young artists interested in making a career of writing music for any genre get to experience just that by attending one of the Cleveland Institute of Music’s signature summer initiatives, the Young Composers Program (YCP). Held online for the first time because of the coronavirus pandemic, this hands-on program guides young artists through the creative process of composition. 

Students from Connecticut to California and everywhere in between were steered through the week by renowned composer and conductor Keith Fitch, head of CIM’s composition department and director of the conservatory’s New Music Ensemble, along with Alex Cooke (MM ’14, DMA ’18, Fitch), Nicholas Landrum (MM, ’14, Fitch) and Gabriel Novak (BM ’12, Fitch), who work together to develop their composition techniques and explore different music, as well as enhance critical listening and scoring analysis skills. 

Still, students attending YCP aren’t necessarily composition neophytes. They’re composers in their own right, with the week culminating in a virtual performance of their current works by professional chamber musicians – all of whom are either CIM alumni or faculty. 

Dade Fuller of Cleveland, a student at Campus International High School who comes from a musical family and digital composition background, said he wanted to expand his repertoire and learn the fundamentals of writing music and music theory. For his final project, he challenged himself to compose a piece without using digitization. Following rehearsals and refinements during the week, “Flute Suite” was performed by Audrey Whartenby (BM ’15, PS ’17, Smith) on the final day of the program. 

“This was my first flute piece ever, and the first time I had a genuine task in writing a composition without the use of digital advantages,” Fuller said. “I wanted to go with something a little bit difficult, a challenge, and I researched the 12-tone row technique for (what I call) the Marche.” 

Given his digital background, however, it was inevitable that Fuller would also join Novak’s electronic film scoring class. The class included work on a composition for an animated short. By removing sound from the film, Novak took suggestions from each student on how to score different scenes. Student Adam Winograd of Weston, MA, suggested replacing the actions of the protagonist – a magician who was being taunted by his nemesis, a rabbit standing offstage – with the sound of a timpani as he reached his hand into a hat, followed by a drum and flute scale. 

“That,” Novak told the students, “is just the beginning of how you create a score. Every gesture has its own sound.” 

Novak was teaching the up-and-coming composers how to electronically create music with resources used by professional record and film producers worldwide to tune and manipulate audio signals, typically dialogue or a singer’s vocals. 

Novak, now a PhD student at the University of Chicago, led a discussion on “Mickey Mousing,” an electronic process which syncs accompanying music with movement on the screen. The practice gets its name from Disney cartoons and films, where the music almost completely works to mimic the animated motions of the characters. 

In addition to Whartenby, professional chamber musicians who worked with and performed the students’ compositions at week’s end were pianist Shuai Wang (BM ’03, MM ’05, AD ’07, DMA ’11, Jones/Pontremoli/Schenly/D. Shapiro) and violinist Hanna Cooper Landrum (BM ’14, Updegraff, PS ’16, Preucil). 

“Our program provides students a high level of consistent and intensive focus on the process and production of music composition, giving them the tools and freedom necessary to shape the future of new music,” said Fitch, who leads YCP. “With a great faculty who are dedicated, gifted teachers and a superb network of musicians, the Young Composers Program offers students a launching pad for artistic expression that is grounded in disciplined work, expert guidance and real-world experience.”