St. Olaf College | News

Discovering opportunities, developing as a composer

Grace Brigham ’20, the winner of this year’s Cantus Young and Emerging Composer Competition, says the liberal arts music education at St. Olaf has provided her with the support and opportunities to explore her interests and pursue her dream of becoming a composer.

As Grace Brigham ’20 joined hundreds of others in St. Olaf College’s Boe Memorial Chapel this fall to hear the renowned choral ensemble Cantus perform, she was both nervous and excited.

While she had attended countless performances in Boe Chapel before — it is, after all, a venue where thousands of different voices and musical compositions have echoed off the walls over the years — this time was different.

Sitting in the pews among her friends and fellow composers, Brigham anxiously waited as the lyrics and melodies of her own composition, “Discoveries,” began to wash over the crowd. She felt an overwhelming feeling of happiness to hear something she created come to life. 

The winner of this year’s Cantus Young and Emerging Composer Competition, Brigham has made her mark at St. Olaf. Not only did the Cantus ensemble premiere her award-winning piece on campus, they performed her composition nationally as part of their touring program. The inspiration behind “Discoveries” was to advocate for women’s rights and highlight women through music. Since the theme of the competition was “technology and innovation,” Brigham decided to choose quotes by female scientists — which the all-male ensemble Cantus would then premiere.

“The main question I kept repeating to myself while thinking about the competition was ‘What if they sang about women?'” Brigham says. “Even though they’re a tenor-bass choir, I think it’s a unique opportunity for them to advocate for feminism that isn’t from a soprano-alto choir. Usually, pieces that touch on women speak to the physical traits or emotions of a woman, and not their smarts or integrity.”

In composing the piece, Brigham drew on her experience at a STEM-focused, all-girls high school where leaders and teachers pushed students to do whatever they wanted to in terms of career.

The field of music composition doesn’t find itself often in the science world; both are still heavily male-dominated studies, and that is where their similarities begin,” Brigham says, noting that she’s felt the impact of being a young woman in the composition world. 

That’s why the opportunities she’s had with “Discoveries” means the world to Brigham. Her work will be heard on a bigger platform, thus helping her composition career in the long run. Furthermore, she’s honored to be able to connect that part of her identity to the piece and have people hear her message around the country.

Most importantly, she appreciates the opportunity this presents to continue doing the work she loves: composing. Watching Cantus bring her piece to life, she says, confirmed that she wants to continue this work.

“It’s been amazing and makes me really happy. I don’t know how to explain it — it’s just a really good feeling,” Brigham says. 

Grace Brigham '20 poses with Cantus after the performance. Photo by Steven Garcia '20.
Grace Brigham ’20 poses with Cantus after the performance. Photo by Steven Garcia ’20.

Since her debut at St. Olaf, the Cathedral Choral Society selected “Discoveries” for their composition masterclass for young women composers with the highly regarded composer Augusta Read Thomas. The piece will be performed live by the Artifice Ensemble.

Brigham’s ambition, as well as the endless support she receives from her friends and family, is what pushes her to do more. She also credits her growing success to the faculty support she’s received at St. Olaf. Music faculty member Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, who conducts Viking Chorus and Chapel Choir, has not only encouraged her to pursue composition, but urged her to submit a piece for the competition. He has been a staple in her musical journey at St. Olaf. With his guidance, Brigham has gained valuable connections and opportunities, and has learned an immense amount about music. 

What led Brigham to St. Olaf in the first place was her love for music. Her parents met through recreational opera, so music seems to have always been in her blood. She started playing violin, piano, and singing at an early age and continues to perfect her craft. She performed with the Washington National Cathedral Choir for five years, and knew she wanted to play violin in the orchestra at St. Olaf while also being involved in the choir.

For Brigham, the liberal arts curriculum at St. Olaf provides many opportunities to explore in ways that wouldn’t have been possible in a regular conservatory program. 

In addition to having the freedom to take lessons in composition, voice, and violin, Brigham has had opportunities to explore work as a nursing assistant and take art classes in the Bahamas. She also had the opportunity to study abroad as part of the Music in the Alps program, which enabled her to explore Bad Gastein, Austria, for three weeks while learning and performing a wide array of music. She received vocal instruction, took master classes, and performed with professional Ukrainian singers.

All of these opportunities at St. Olaf have made Brigham a vocal advocate for a liberal arts music education — and, she says, being an Ole can lead to amazing things. “Being in a liberal arts atmosphere, I’m not trapped — there are no limitations,” she says.

With hopes of being a full-time composer, Brigham is on the right path.

Grace Brigham ’20 stands in recognition of her piece at the Cantus performance in Boe Chapel. Photo by Steven Garcia ’20.