Young composers face a daunting—if not nearly impossible—task in getting their pieces played for an audience. It is difficult enough to attract the attention of an orchestra, much less round up enough money to pay them.
Fortunately, Duke’s music department has offered select undergraduates the chance to showcase their own work as composers. This year, Duke Symphony Orchestra will perform the pieces of two winners of a student composition contest in an April 12 concert, titled “Shakespearean Transformations,” at Baldwin Auditorium.
“It’s one thing to write a composition in the abstract, but if you write a composition, you want it performed,” music director and conductor of DSO Harry Davidson said. “The notion of writing for an orchestra is no small undertaking, so we wanted to provide that experience for worthy young composers to have their music actually performed.”
Seniors Jon Aisenberg and Ilhan Gokhan, this year’s two winners, are nearing the end of a months-long journey of writing parts for a full orchestra. Both classical pianists at their core, Aisenberg and Gokhan said they had composed before—perhaps for voice, piano or a small ensemble—but never on this scale.
“It’s like writing a paper. What I had done before was writing three-page papers or five-page papers, and this was like writing a 20-page paper or like a 30-page paper,” Aisenberg said. “You have an idea and you have to develop it, you have to prove it. And the different ways you bring musical ideas together is just like writing with words, where you have to make it cogent, you have to make it make sense, you have to make it fit.”
Plans for a composition competition arose around three years ago as an effort to enhance Duke’s composition department and highlight the musical talent of undergraduates. This year is the Symphony Orchestra’s first time featuring student winners; the Duke Wind Symphony and DSO alternately host the competition.
As with any creative venture, the approach to composing music varies from person to person. For example, while Aisenberg was most comfortable doing all his composition on software like Finale Notepad, Gokhan described filling up pages of sheet music with sketches before transferring them to digital format. Both agreed, however, that the process was not unlike writing a typical paper. Just as one might consult an English professor for advice on a paragraph or turn of phrase, they would bring melodies and counterpoints to a music professor; just as essays require parsing and condensing, compositions require their own form of editing—removing a phrase here, adding contrast there.
“It’s very easy just to bring things together or make it sound similar, to tie it together,” Gokhan said. “But actually coming up with different melodies that are contrasting but can work together—that was kind of a challenge early on in the process.”
Of course, the task of writing unique parts for numerous instruments brings its own share of challenges. As pianists, Aisenberg and Gokhan might find themselves limited in composing for, say, French horn. For this reason, fellow student musicians and professors like Davidson came in handy in a process that began when the two winners auditioned as juniors.
“It’s like giving birth,” Aisenberg said of the composition process before explaining, “I’ve literally worked on this piece for nine months, and then it comes out and you hear it. And hopefully you love it like you do a baby.”
If these compositions are children, they are children without names. One of the seemingly simplest elements of composition has proven to be one most challenging, and so far neither senior’s piece has an official title. Regardless, both said they were excited to see their pieces performed under Davidson’s conducting.
“Getting this opportunity is a really great learning experience, and it doesn’t come often,” Gokhan said. “This process is a great way to either reflect on life or express yourself. And it sounds so cliché at the moment, but when you actually do it, it’s very meaningful.”
In addition to Aisenberg’s and Gokhan’s compositions, the April 12 concert will feature performances of Leonard Bernstein’s symphonic dances from the musical “West Side Story” and Henry Purcell’s “The Gordian Knot Untied”—themselves a continuation of the Shakespearean theme that has driven DSO’s performances this season in honor of the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death.
First-year student Ian Levitan will also perform the first movement of Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto as the most recent winner of the music department’s student concerto competition. Unlike the relatively new composition competition, the concerto contest has been around for years. It provides students like Levitan, who has played piano since he was five years old, the opportunity to expose their talent to a wider audience.
Though the Duke Symphony Orchestra welcomes all members of the Duke community, including graduate students and faculty, the composition and concerto compositions put the spotlight on undergraduate contributions. For the students who participate, they are opportunities not easily won without the resources afforded by a place like Duke. For the faculty and the audience, they are a chance to see some of the best young musical talent at the university.
“The biggest number of people in the orchestra are Duke undergraduates,” Davidson said. “It’s quite fascinating to see what they come up with.”
Concert “Shakespearean Transformations” is at 8 p.m. April 12 in Baldwin Auditorium; admission is free.
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