That composer who earns standing ovations and signs autographs? He hasn’t graduated yet
While this fall’s St. Olaf Band tour featured works from well-known composers such as Hector Berlioz and Edward Elgar, the smash hit at concert after concert was a piece by a composer who hasn’t yet graduated: St. Olaf College junior Aryaman Joshi ’23.
Joshi’s composition, “Kaalachakra, The Wheel of Time,” plays with elements of both traditional Indian music and Western classical music. The composition integrates the use of Indian percussive and verbal elements with the functional harmonies and instrumentation of Western classical traditions.
“It’s a collision of two worlds, which reflects my experience of being at a college in the United States,” Joshi says.
His composition quickly became the most memorable and talked-about piece on the St. Olaf Band’s tour program, with audience members offering standing ovations and seeking out Joshi’s autograph at the end of concerts.
Watch Joshi’s piece performed at the St. Olaf Band Home Tour concert below.
Joshi is one of several young composers making their mark at St. Olaf, and joins a growing list of students and alumni with promising futures as composers.
Students studying composition at St. Olaf have many opportunities to explore their creativity and hone their skills. They work one-on-one with professors, can tailor their music studies to focus on composition, and have the ability to have their works performed by their peers in college-sponsored and student-run ensembles. Students have had recent works performed by the St. Olaf Band, St. Olaf Orchestra, Manitou Singers, and St. Olaf Chapel Choir, as well as in the Fresh Ink concert series and the SYNERGY Musician’s Collective. The college’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program also regularly supports the work of student musicians and composers.
As part of a CURI project this summer titled “Sounding Our Times: Composing a Musical Response to Today’s Challenges,” Joshi, Murphy Severtson ’22, and Chris Martin ’23 all composed pieces that will be or already have been premiered by the St. Olaf Band. Through this project the students had the opportunity to work individually with St. Olaf Band Conductor Timothy Mahr ’78, the Robert E. Scholz Professor of Music and an established and internationally renowned composer.
In this 10-week intensive project, Joshi, Severtson, and Martin each worked to compose their own piece that reflected their personal stories. The composition projects took place on campus and consisted of 40-hour paid work weeks. Because of the amount of time spent developing their compositions, Joshi, Severtson, and Martin had the opportunity to have an immersive, dedicated composition experience they don’t often get during a traditional academic year.
“This past summer was rather intense for these students. I think they all discovered how challenging it can be to focus on creating art as the driving force for how one is thinking and expressing themselves,” Mahr says.
It may have been challenging, but the resulting compositions are powerful.
Personal stories, set to music
Joshi is a junior from India pursuing a B.A. in music composition and mathematics with concentrations in statistics and data science. He plays piano in the St. Olaf Band and is a member of the Chapel Ringers (a handbell ensemble), St. Olaf Chapel Choir, and the newly formed Improvisation Ensemble. He is also vice president of the St. Olaf Taiko Club, a student-led organization celebrating the Japanese art form of Taiko drumming.
Using his math major, Joshi enjoys composing microtonal music using alternate tuning systems through numbers. One of his favorite pieces he has written was an electronic film score for one of his composition classes. In this piece, Joshi divides the music into 31 parts as opposed to the usual 12, also known as 31-Tone-Equal-Temperament.
In the past, Joshi has mostly composed pieces that he can play himself, noting that he hadn’t had the opportunity to have pieces performed before arriving at St. Olaf. His piece for the St. Olaf Band is only the second time he has ever had his work performed by someone other than himself.
“After only listening to a computer-generated version of my piece during the summer, hearing my peers actually play it for the first time brought back its color and life,” he says.
After only listening to a computer-generated version of my piece during the summer, hearing my peers actually play it for the first time brought back its color and life.Aryaman Joshi ’23
Severtson is a senior music composition major from Delray Beach, Florida. An accomplished composer, they have written for the St. Olaf Band, the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Walden School Players, and ArxDuo, and have studied with Mahr, Professor of Music Composition and Theory Justin Merritt, and composer Daniel Felsenfeld. As a pianist, Severtson plays in the Improvisation Ensemble, a jazz combo, and Jazz II. They are also the leader of Musika Nova, a group dedicated to new music and composition on campus.
Severtson’s composition, titled “Standing Upright,” details experiences they have had with chronic illness and disability and their wish for these realities “to not be considered minorities in society, but instead as natural inevitabilities.” The piece employs the use of a heartbeat motif, both dissonant and harmonic chords, and rhythm to communicate the narrative of the difficulties of living with chronic illness.
Performed at the 2021 St. Olaf Festival of Bands by the St. Olaf Band, Severtson’s composition was heard by families and educators of many high school musicians participating in the program. This opportunity brought exposure to Severtson’s work and opportunities to write for other ensembles in the future.
Watch Severtson’s composition performed at the St. Olaf Festival of Bands below.
Severtson writes a lot of chamber music, noting that this is what mostly gets performed on college campuses and during the pandemic. One such chamber piece, which was performed at a music camp Severtson attended, was written for violin, viola, cello, flute, and piano. While this is not a common quintet instrumentation, Severtson wrote it to be played by the other members of the composition studio on their primary instruments. Severtson also did not have the benefit of using composition software and instead had to write the piece by hand, making for a memorable experience.
Martin is a junior pursuing a B.M. degree in composition and church music who sings Bass I in the St. Olaf Choir. Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Martin is an alum of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Pre-College Program, where he fostered his growing love of composition.
While yet to be performed, Martin’s piece is in response to the epidemic of gun violence in the United States, and is intended to depict the emotions felt during a violent shooting. To do this, Martin’s piece is composed to elicit feelings of discomfort and uneasiness from the audience through dissonance and powerful, complex chords.
“It is less of a narration of an event, but is intended to depict the emotions of a shooting and the culture of gun violence that we have,” Martin says.
Martin also enjoys writing for chamber ensembles, even though he doesn’t play many of the instruments he writes for. He sees this as a challenge to him as a composer to become more skilled in learning the strengths of certain voices and instruments.
Finding a compositional voice
Joshi, Severtson, and Martin are all similar in that much of their inspiration for composing comes from other forms of art and media, often centering around social justice issues and topics that speak to their personal experiences. That approach is mirrored by other student composers across campus.
Eugene Sandel ’22, a vocal music education major who sings Bass I in the St. Olaf Choir, is currently working on a choral composition, and recently finished a work for narrator and band that will be premiered by the St. Olaf Band at the Celebration Concert during the 2022 Commencement Weekend. When writing, Sandel is inspired by events that happen in his own life. “When this happens I’ll take the events, process my feelings into a melody, and start to build the music from there,” Sandel says.
Severtson and Martin often turn to poetry when beginning a piece.
“I’ll read a poem and try to use the rhythm of the words to create a melody in my music,” Martin says.
Aside from using poetry to develop a musical structure, Severtson also reads poetry to find stories to tell. One such poem, “on climate crisis,” is about the topic of climate change, and influenced a composition that will be performed by the Manitou Singers in the spring of 2022.
“Sometimes something is just asking to be set to music,” Severtson says.
Amber Dai ’22 looks to elements of nature to inspire her compositions despite being from the large city of Beijing, China. Dai has written about everything from clouds and starry nights to mushrooms and sceneries. Currently, she is writing a multi-movement viola quartet about the life cycle of butterflies.
“Most of the time, these things I depict have memories or stories behind them, which is what makes them special and inspiring,” Dai says.
As a senior composition major, Dai is constantly working on more than one piece at a time. However, she finds this kind of work valuable because it allows her to diversify her thought process more than if she were working on one piece at a time.
Once an idea begins to take shape, each of the composers has different ways in which they go about refining and continuing their work. Both Joshi and Severtson begin at the piano, their primary instrument, as it is easy for them to visualize what they want to say.
While writing for vocal works, Martin likes to start by becoming intimately familiar with the text he is setting to music in order to be comfortable with syllabic stress and overall flow of the writing.
Despite differences in process, they all share the common goal of using their compositions to tell a story. These stories belong both to themselves and others with the goal of communicating commonalities among human beings. Because of the deeply personal connections to the stories told, the process of composing becomes much easier and enjoyable.
“If I’m starting a piece and I don’t know what the message is yet, I don’t usually continue it until I figure that out,” Martin says.
And not every theme has to be serious in order to make an impact.
Severtson recently worked with Professor of Music Louis Epstein, a member of the children’s music duo Louis and Dan and the Invisible Band, to orchestrate one of their songs to be performed by the St. Olaf Orchestra at their 2021 Family Concert.
Watch the St. Olaf Orchestra 2021 Family Concert below.
Louis Dhoore ’23, a composition major at St. Olaf and the assistant principal violist of the St. Olaf Orchestra, is working on a piece that plays on the game of chess. Titled simply A Game of Chess, it’s an aleatoric piece in which the performers memorize coordinates and play musical motives based on moves of a live, projected game of chess.
This is one of two pieces that Dhoore intends to have performed at their senior composition recital. The second piece, titled On the Nature of Consciousness, is a five-movement song cycle that works in texts about metaphysical concepts. This year Dhoore has also had their music performed by the Spiritus Novus ensemble and the SYNERGY Musician’s Collective on campus.
“I appreciate having a tight-knit group of individuals within the major to fall back on when I need a fresh pair of eyes,” Dhoore says. “Musika Nova, the primary new music organization on campus that goes through cycles of activity, has been a definite asset to our community.”
Majoring in composition
The composition major at St. Olaf is unique, as much of the education happens with performance practice and the development of a compositional portfolio. Integral in this development is the ability to have ensembles that will perform a student’s composition.
This opportunity is just one of many that student composers are able to take advantage of at St. Olaf. As part of the music major, students can opt to take composition classes as electives or as a requirement of the composition major. In these classes, students are taught how to effectively write for voices and instruments both independently and in conjunction with one another. Students also receive guidance from their peers through performance lab classes. Other musicians are asked to come to composition classes and play through the compositions created by students in the class. By doing this, composition students learn how to check their scores for functional readability by those who perform their work. Students are also given guidance on how to ensure ease of reading through performance lab classes where other music students play the compositions for the class.
To learn the basics of composition, students receive prompts and guidelines for each of their projects. The composition faculty, which includes Mahr and Merritt, provide direct feedback and mentorship.
As composition majors, students take weekly composition lessons, similar to those for instruments and voice. At these lessons, students bring current projects they are working on to be reviewed by Mahr and Merritt. The faculty members point out where things aren’t working in the piece or where they believe an idea could be stronger, as well as the basic abilities of different instruments and voice types. Although they offer guidance, faculty members encourage students to develop their own compositional voice, similar to how the individual voice of an author functions.
Many students looking to hone their composition skills opt to attend a conservatory-style institution where students solely study music. Mahr is convinced that a liberal arts education serves composers better.
“While a conservatory might provide an experience that would be more intensely focused on music, I’ve always felt that the broader worldview developed during a liberal arts education serves a creative artist best. One can only express what comes from within,” Mahr says.
While a conservatory might provide an experience that would be more intensely focused on music, I’ve always felt that the broader worldview developed during a liberal arts education serves a creative artist best. One can only express what comes from within.St. Olaf Band Conductor and Professor of Music Timothy Mahr ’78
This is exactly why Severtson was never interested in attending a conservatory for their undergraduate degree. “I think it’s so important for composers to be well-versed in disciplines other than music because I think your music can get really boring if that is the only thing you study,” Severtson says.
How students support each other
Outside of the requirements of the composition major, there are numerous student-led groups that give young composers the opportunity to have their pieces played and to interact with their fellow student composers.
Fresh Ink is a concert series that allows for both composition students and students interested in composition to submit their works to be performed. As the organizer for this series, Severtson encourages as many students as possible to submit their compositions, and believes it to be a good starting point for students who are interested in composition at St. Olaf.
Dai says the Fresh Ink series exemplifies the support for composers at St. Olaf. “The composer community here is very inclusive and I feel safe to share my music with my peers. I also love the support from the faculty members and my fellow musicians that make our compositions happen. Every year, my favorite recital to go to is the Fresh Ink concert because it is so exciting to witness new music happen,” Dai says.
The composer community here is very inclusive and I feel safe to share my music with my peers. I also love the support from the faculty members and my fellow musicians that make our compositions happen.Amber Dai ’22
Severtson is also the leader of Musika Nova, a group dedicated to forming relationships between student composers on campus. As is true with many artistic disciplines, the field of professional composition is very competitive. Severtson sees more advantage in collaboration, and they encourage camaraderie among composers through weekly meetings to discuss music and composition and to help each other form connections.
“The composers here are really trying to cultivate a space where we can simply be together, not always competing against one another,” Severtson says.
Continuing with composition
Because of their participation in the CURI composition program, Severtson, Joshi, and Martin all have the unique experience of composing for a large, nationally-recognized ensemble. This experience is not one that many young composers have, and is invaluable as they look forward to further education and careers in composition and orchestration.
In addition to having their works performed, St. Olaf students also benefit from the professional-level recording capabilities of the college’s Broadcast Media Services team. When applying for graduate composition programs, having quality recordings of their work sets applicants apart from others.
“Having a professional recording of your piece by an incredible group of musicians is such a special addition to my portfolio, and an opportunity not everyone gets,” Martin says.
After graduating from St. Olaf, Severtson, Joshi, and Martin all plan to pursue a career in composition. Most composers go on to obtain graduate degrees in pursuit of developing their compositional voice and to study further with other renowned and experienced composers. Many St. Olaf composition students have gone on to become well-known composers, such as Mari Esabel Valverde ’10, David Reynolds ’87, Jocelyn Hagen ’03, Abby Betinis ’01, Matthew Peterson ’06, and many more.
While it can be daunting and intimidating for young composers to put themselves and their work out into the world, St. Olaf students are part of a community that provides encouragement and support. Joshi says it’s important to take advantage of the opportunities on campus to connect with both experienced composers and fellow students.
“I really recommend taking initiative in forming a community of composers and musicians. It is the best way to elicit feedback and to establish connections that can help you in your career in the future,” he says.
I really recommend taking initiative in forming a community of composers and musicians. It is the best way to elicit feedback and to establish connections that can help you in your career in the future.Aryaman Joshi ’23
And, Severtson says, it’s important for young composers to use that support as a springboard to take risks and try new things.
“Don’t be afraid to just do it,” Severtson says. “Don’t let anyone tell you that your music is invalid. Your voice is always important.”