The SLSO's First Composer Workshop

By Tim Munro


The SLSO and Music Director Stéphane Denève are committed to developing the repertoire of the future. In January, the SLSO ran its first Composer Workshop, designed to establish and foster relationships with composers in the early stages of their careers.


Composer John Adams took part in the multi-day workshop, which involved sessions with SLSO musicians, administration, and librarians. The workshop culminated in a live performance on January 30 led by Assistant Conductor Stephanie Childress.


Composers selected for the inaugural SLSO Composers Workshop were Aiyana Braun, Christian Quiñones, Peter Shin, and Nicky Sohn. I spoke with all four of them, asking them about their musical backgrounds and the pieces the SLSO played in January.

 

Aiyana Braun (b. 1997) is an Israeli American composer and sound artist, currently pursuing a Master of Music degree at the University of Southern California. She has written ten works for orchestra and frequently collaborates with choreographers, dancers, and visual artists.


My introduction to music was through dance. Both my parents are professional dancers, and I have such a visceral memory of being in the studio—it was an immersive experience, feeling the vibrations of the music, watching the dance.


Dance is still a lens through which I listen to music. The element of dance and how it connects to music tends to be part of my process, even if I’m writing a piece that has nothing to do with the dance world.

My parents aren’t musicians, but practice basically every other form of art. Creating was so normal when I was growing up. It was never a conscious decision—I would just make up dances and make inventions out of paper. I was always looking to create something.

I went to the Curtis Institute, which is the only music school in the country that has all of the composition students write a new orchestral piece every year. I was able to try different things every year, and since the orchestra is made up of friends of mine, I was able to really get into the nitty gritty of what they like to play.

My piece Refractions was kind of an experiment. I wanted to just explore a lot of different colors and textures. I was thinking a lot about the identity of a musical gesture—how much it could be altered before its identity would change. And I just kind of let myself write and have fun with that idea.

 

Christian Quiñones (b. 1996) is a Puerto Rican composer who this year began his PhD. as a President’s Fellow at Princeton University. His music explores concepts like cultural identity and the intersection between vernacular music, electronic textures, rock, and Latin music.


When I was nine, I went to a music store with my mom. Music had always been in the background: it was what I heard on the radio. In the store, I bought a Black Eyed Peas album—it was the first time that I actively made a decision about music, thinking, “Hey, what is my musical taste?”


There is this a great quote from the composer David Lang, that every time you are listening to music and you think, “Oh, I wish that was a little bit longer,” you’re actively composing.

I began to make music as a way to understand music. Up to that point, I could read music, but music theory was this almost mystical thing. I bought a secondhand music theory book and I started figuring it out with my cheap keyboard. These discoveries made me want to start my own band.

I grew up in Puerto Rico. During my early teenage years was a golden age for reggaeton [a genre combining hip hop, Latin American, and Caribbean music]. I knew the songs because I heard them everywhere, but I was too pretentious to enjoy them as a kid. Now I can open the door to this incredible music.

There’s an idea—in classical music—that when you’re dealing with any type of music outside the classical canon, that you want to do it in an “elegant” way.


People will compliment your music by saying, “you have these other elements, but you did it in an elegant way.”

I started to include elements of reggaeton in my music. Switch-Up is part of a series that is more and more unapologetic about including elements of this genre. The piece is about how I experienced reggaeton as a teenager, a genre I didn’t like at the time, but have come to love.

 

Peter S. Shin (b. 1991) is a native of Kansas City, Missouri, the son of South Korean immigrants. He is currently pursuing his PhD. at the University of California, Berkeley. His music investigates issues of social and national belonging, and the border between the two halves of his Korean American identity.


My earliest musical memory is of a Korean folksong. I heard it as a kid in my Saturday Korean classes in Kansas City, and at the time it was one of the only things I knew about Korean culture. That melody stuck with me throughout my childhood.

I was very bold in high school. My school orchestra would play these terrible orchestral covers of songs, and I was bold enough to think I could write something myself. So I asked the orchestra director if I could write something. She let me make an arrangement and conduct it in class.

In 2016, I was struck with a sudden desire to reconnect with the Korean side of my Korean American identity. My piece Relapse encapsulates that desire and the struggle to learn something new.

I didn’t know any Korean music except for the folksong I learned as a child, which became part of this new piece. There are many different versions of the song’s text, but the most well-known one talks about a longing for home. It paralleled nicely with my own desire to reconnect with my roots.


I was in Los Angeles at the time. I was learning Korean, interacting with other Korean people, eating out in Koreatown. I was growing and learning, but found I could easily run into a rut. Musically, that idea is captured by these disruptions that happened in the piece. Near the end of the piece, the actual folksong appears and is disrupted by the rest of the orchestra.

The word “relapse” touches on that sense that, despite your progress, you are often going back to where you first started.


 

Nicky Sohn (b. 1992) is a doctoral student at The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. Born in Seoul, South Korea, she has written many solo, chamber, and orchestral works, and her current specialty lies within theatrical music, such as ballet and opera.


I can’t really remember a time that I didn’t have music in my life. I sang a lot growing up, and started improvising on piano when I was like seven. Apparently, I came back from kindergarten one day and picked out the melody of Brahms’ lullaby on my toy piano.


As a kid, practicing piano frustrated me. Music was a way of expressing myself, but when I practiced piano I had to learn to fit myself into somebody else’s expression. So I would tweak things in a Chopin nocturne or play a Mozart sonata in a minor key.

I love writing for orchestra. There are just endless possibilities of timbre, of color. I also love the pressure of writing for the orchestra—it makes me nervous having my imaginary orchestra sitting there, playing my music. That challenges me to write music that is meaningful.

Working with a conductor can be very interesting—seeing how my music can be interpreted in so many different ways, at so many different tempos. They will sometimes end up knowing my music better than I do.

My piece Moon Bunny is dedicated to my sister. She was married recently and I couldn’t make it to the wedding. So I wanted to do something to celebrate. Moon Bunny has a lot of energy—it’s like a wedding march, wishing them a nice life together!

The music is based on a Korean folk tune that my sister and I would sing as children. ln the song, bunnies live on the moon and make rice cakes each night. In Korea, we use rice cakes to celebrate occasions. Referencing our childhood seemed appropriate, allowing me to touch on something deeply rooted and fundamental.

 

Tim Munro is the SLSO's Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.