A Complement of Composers
Diversity of MSU faculty and student voices builds on a legacy.
Ricardo Lorenz knew he was entrusted with a legacy when he became chair of the Composition Area in the MSU College of Music in 2014. He also imagined transforming the area into a prominent destination for music composition.
With the support of the College of Music Dean James Forger and his long-time colleague Mark Sullivan, Lorenz has recruited and built a composition faculty with a multiplicity of voices in traditional, contemporary and emerging forms of music. The college hired four new composers in 2016, filling the gaps left by the retirements of Jere Hutcheson and Charles Ruggiero while broadening the depth of the area.
“Thirty or so years ago, there was a clear aesthetic and hierarchy in composition departments across the country,” said Lorenz, a professor of composition. “That’s not the case with this new generation of composers. Their interests are so diverse, and the business of music has changed a great deal. When we sought new composition faculty, we were being observant of this natural evolution and how it’s enriched the freedom for students and faculty to compose in different genres taking advantage of new media.”
Neal Endicott was looking for a doctoral program where he could maximize his master’s in business, his bachelor’s in saxophone, and his passion to compose music informed by jazz, modern harmonies, and Eastern European folk. He found what he was looking for at MSU.
“MSU was by far the most welcoming,” said Endicott. “When I visited, faculty showed a genuine interest in the work I was doing and on establishing whether the program would be a good fit.”
Endicott was drawn to the diversity of the MSU Composition Area and by the opportunity to simultaneously pursue a doctorate in composition and a master’s in music theory. He’s on course to graduate Spring 2019 and studies with David Biedenbender, an assistant professor of composition who has written for the concert stage and for dance and multimedia works.
“Professor Biedenbender and the other faculty I’ve worked with are committed to letting my personal voice develop and come out in my work,” said Endicott. “Faculty don’t try to shape my output to match their own aesthetic.”
Endicott’s experiences reflect the area’s mission to informally cultivate a more diverse student body by diversifying the faculty. The area’s new undergraduate curriculum also echoes the influences of faculty—some who work in electronic music or merge visual arts and sound. New courses consider the issues faced by today’s composers, and explore topics like film scoring, notation and engraving, and entrepreneurial skills.
“We’re conscious of the fact that composers and artists are mirrors of their own cultural and temporal context,” Biedenbender said. “Our students are writing about the things they care about and responding to events in real time. We respect that.”
Biedenbender, Lorenz said, is among the four newer faculty shaping the direction of the composition area alongside leadership and department veteran Mark Sullivan. In addition to Biedenbender, the cohort includes Alexis Bacon, Lyn Goeringer and Zhou Tian.
“We cover the whole spectrum,” said Lorenz, whose rhythmically-driven compositions have been performed around the world by orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony, Jerusalem Symphony, and Czech National Symphony, among many others. “Our composers range from the symphonists who write lush orchestral pieces to the intra-media composers who inhabit spaces between sound and images. We all complement one another.”
Consider Zhou, associate professor of composition, and Goeringer, assistant professor of composition. Nominee of the 2018 GRAMMY Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for his Concerto for Orchestra, Zhou works in the acoustic realm, composing pieces for symphony orchestras and ensembles of all kinds. Goeringer’s compositions transport audiences through the intersection of technology, instrumentation and installation art involving sound. Much of her work and research is cross-disciplinary and overlaps with her work in film with the College of Arts and Letters.
“Students here are hungry for new music and musical ideas,” said Goeringer. “They are eager to try new things.”
Zhou seeks inspiration from different cultures and strives to seamlessly mix influences in symphonic pieces. He derives immense satisfaction from working with students.
“At MSU, passion and innovation go hand-in-hand with craftsmanship and refinement,” he said. “I’m inspired by the students’ relentless search for new ideas and their pursuit of perfection in their day-to-day music making.”
Bacon is also among the new composers making an impact. The assistant professor of composition describes her style as “eclectic” but admits she is rooted in the classical tradition. She draws inspiration from a range of genres, including experimental music and folk musics from around the world. In addition to composing for the concert stage, Bacon collaborates with artists in other disciplines as evidenced in “Shark: The Musical”—an ongoing experimental musical theatre project which invites audience members to use their cell phones to vote on plot points and control aspects of lighting and music.
“For me, it’s been a fascinating creative challenge that involves combining elements of musical theatre, which is traditionally highly structured, with the process of using technology in order to release some creative control,” she said. “We’re empowering the audience to make decisions in a way that is both innovative and really fun.”
Like her colleagues, Bacon’s work reaches audiences through performances at MSU and national or international venues. In Bacon’s case, the interactive, scientific nature of her work attracted the interest of MSU’s Science Gallery Lab in Detroit—an initiative designed to ignite STEM careers and education among youth ages 15-25.
Sullivan, who fosters partnerships through the Gallery via his work with the College of Music and the MSU HUB for Innovation, Learning and Technology, said Bacon’s work is an ideal fit for the initiative.
“The gallery looks at the connection between art and science,” said Sullivan. “In this particular instance, we’re able to illustrate the connection between art, sound and scientific ideas, and to show students what interesting ideas emerge when different disciplines collaborate.”
While artistic works and collaborations echo new directions, the resounding boom in student achievements verify a successful return on investment.
In the fall of 2018, the MSU Composition Area experienced a 30 percent increase in enrollment. The program welcomed 14 new student composers, bringing the number of MSU students studying composition to 30 each semester.
The area, too, is attracting more students from different disciplines. Ten students recently enrolled for a new composition course for the non-majors. More composition students, too, are pursuing double majors or master’s in music theory to complement their composition degrees.
“We have a more dynamic area now in terms of faculty, students, and programs courses,” said Lorenz. “People know us as a place that’s looking at composition differently. That’s why we’re seeing so much growth and success.”
In recent years, the college has placed a half-dozen doctoral graduates into full-time tenure-track jobs. Several graduates have also gone on to pursue masters or doctorates at prestigious U.S. conservatories—or have stayed-in-place at MSU for advanced studies.
Evan Snyder is among them. A double master’s candidate in music composition and music theory pedagogy, Snyder returned to MSU after receiving his bachelor’s in voice a few years ago.
“I had heard a whole lot about the flexibility of the new faculty—about how MSU had people coming in from traditional orchestral canonic work to cutting edge electronic music to people who scaled the gambit in between,” he said. “I wanted to be part of it.”
Snyder recently premiered his first opera, “A Capacity for Evil,” in Detroit. He’s now switching gears and composing a children’s story piece for the ConTempus Initiative—a Lansing-based chamber group. He’s worked with Bacon and Biedenbender and said each has exposed him to new ideas and techniques.
“My approach and goals haven’t changed, but what has changed is the technical and creative facility I have to make what I’ve wanted to do all along,” he said. “There are so many wonderful resources, courses and faculty here. Students coming to MSU have really lucked out.”