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Monday, May 27, 2024

The Senior Series: Music Composition

Editor’s note: “The Senior Series” aims to give readers a comprehensive look at what senior students have achieved in their four years of instruction at UC Davis. While the following article by Justin Ho covers music composition seniors, the series will continue to showcase other majors related to arts, entertainment and so on. The two mentioned recitals will take place Friday at 4:10 p.m. and June 4 at 3:30 p.m. in 115 Music. For more information, go to music.ucdavis.edu.


The process of becoming a professional composer is neither easy nor simple, and the sheer number of paths available in the field are beyond numerous. Seniors Lloyd Waldo, Aivi Tran and Philip Front each take very different directions in their writing.

The senior composition recital, dubbed “W.T.F.” by Waldo, Tran and Front, showcases the pieces the three have composed over the past school year in conjunction with Composition, Theory and Analysis professors Kurt Rohde and Sam Nichols. The recital will take place in 115 Music on June 4, while a broader undergraduate recital takes place this Friday in the same room.

The annual recital, which was officially started last year by now alumni of the music department, is entirely written and organized by the three composers, all with very minimal assistance from the department faculty.

“The concert itself is the equivalent of a presentation or a final paper,” Rohde said. “Because they are composition majors, what they produce as composers and what is performed at the concert is their [final] project.”

Each student composer offers a different plate of ideas, reflecting his and her own interests and influences. Although the individual composers’ styles are uniquely different, each has extensive training in music and theory.

Front, a senior doubling in music and psychology and an honors composer, entered the music world as a young pianist. Surprisingly, his interest in composition was not always his career goal. Halfway through his time at UC Davis, Front decided to switch majors from economics to the compositional track of the music major.

“I was taking music classes since my freshman year, and in the music theory 6 and 7 [classes], you have to write compositions,” Front said. “That was the first time I ever decided to sit down and write music. I really liked it and decided it was a good direction for me.”

Nevertheless, Front is both technically and passionately proficient. Influenced by the post-minimalist composer John Adams, Front’s compositions are rich and dynamic – full of complex rhythms, changing meters, and feature harpsichord, bassoon and flute.

There to assist Front with rehearsals and practicing is Dave Moschler, a graduate student in the music conducting program at UC Davis. Moschler plays a pivotal yet not an intrusive role in conducting the rehearsals and working with the performers.

“[My job] is not about interpretation,” Moschler said. “Philip’s been at all the rehearsals, and he makes changes in the parts where he feels like it. It’s been a very collaborative effort between [us].”

Tran, a senior music major and also an honors composer featured in the showcase, started playing the piano at age 5 and took to composing in middle school.

“I started off figuring out how to play video game songs on the piano,” Tran said. “From listening to so many [of them], I started writing my own, and I just kind of went from there.”

Tran’s childhood interest in older video games such as the Zelda series or Super Mario Bros. have great influence on the pieces which will appear in the upcoming recital. Her interests particularly circulate around the styles of music found in older Nintendo games, despite the low sound quality.

“Even though the instruments are bad, the music itself is really well crafted,” Tran said. “I guess what you listen to in childhood is what sticks to you…. A lot of people tell me my music sounds like video game music, and I guess they see something similar.”

Other influences include late romantic and early contemporary music, and modern groups such as Ben Folds, Metric and The Bird and the Bee. But a large disparity between pop groups and romantic and contemporary compositions does exist. Tran mentioned her affection for melodic music and that she tends to distance herself from atonal and dissonant styles.

“I think my biggest problem with studying music is that you get a love-hate relationship with it – it’s hard to find a good balance between popular music and academic music,” Tran said. “Soundtrack music, or classical/baroque/romantic music is always very pretty, but when you get beyond that, you start questioning what music is, and it turns into something else. It’s not always lovely – a lot of music students go through this.”

Waldo, a fifth-year senior music and English double major, takes the stage in a very progressive fashion. Waldo’s music is much more electronic than the other two composers’ pieces, and though he is a classical guitarist, much of his recent compositions involve electronic media. Working in conjunction with Professor Nichols, Waldo has been learning the Max/MSP programming tool for sound production, software used by such artists as Autechre, Daft Punk and Aphex Twin. His performances also include other multimedia, such as photography.

As an avid choir, theater and classical guitar enthusiast, Waldo has been involved with music since his early youth. Thoughtful composition and production are Waldo’s passions. He is very interested in the place of music in film and is moved by the power music can have within a movie – whether it’s a piercing string chord or complete and utter silence.

“When I was 10, I told everyone that I wanted to choose the music that goes in movies, because at some level, I thought I knew what was going to work,” said Waldo.

Double majoring in English, Waldo finds interest in the transitions of 20th century themes, both in the literary and musical worlds. The effect of 20th century aesthetics and modernism on everyday life provides a playing ground for Waldo’s compositions, and his music often aims to incorporate the “dying off” feeling from the period.

Waldo also lists Radiohead as one of his biggest contemporary influences, as well as composer Tan Dun, Béla Bartók and the Vitamin String Quartet.

Although the three composers were given free reign over the organization and backbone of the project, the music department assisted the composers in other ways. Faculty provided the students with a place to perform, resources for publicity and funds to compensate the 15 performers.

Most important, however, was the actual assistance that the professors gave to the composers throughout the year. Rohde, who worked with both Front and Tran on their compositions, primarily set guidelines for the composers.

“My job as the instructor is basically to give them the tools to clearly articulate what they want to do,” Rohde said. “It’s a very interesting process because each piece is so different and … addresses different issues. Writing music is a lifelong process, and it can go on forever. It’s all part of a longer continuum.”

Front is currently looking into music publishing, and last summer he had the opportunity to intern in New York with Boosey & Hawkes, a very prominent classical music publisher. Tran sees herself as a soundtrack composer for video games, and already she works as a composer at Stanford University, writing jingles for a children’s math program.

“There are a lot of different options – it depends on what you want to do with your composing,” Rohde said. “Composers rarely make a living just composing – it’s always in combination with other things like teaching, producing or recording.”

“You can’t expect to make money [in the industry],” Waldo said. “You have to forge ahead despite the doubts and flaws you see. There’s a point where successful composers do it well, where you look at your own work and say it’s OK.”

An undergraduate composer concert, which includes both junior and senior pieces, is also scheduled for Friday in the Music Building. This concert is much more facilitated by the music department, whereas the senior composition recital is much more student organized.

For the undergraduate concert, each piece is individually selected from a list of submitted drafts, including chamber music, some solo music and electronic compositions. Many students also perform their own compositions.

“It’s a standard way for performance majors to show off what they’ve learned,” Moschler said. “Composition majors do the same thing [as regular music majors], but instead of only playing instruments, they play works they’ve written.”


JUSTIN HO can be reached at arts@californiaaggie.com.


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