Some of them hear our world
differently. Others just communicate most effectively through notes.
The best know instinctively that they can build a better mousetrap.
They all think outside the box.
The result: inventions with the potential to add to the repertoire.
Composer Beth Wiemann knows these enterprising students well. If
serious student composers are at the University of Maine, they
eventually end up at her office door in the School of Performing Arts,
armed with a portfolio of compositions and arrangements that they
started in high school or completed in the beginning of their college
These are the students "predispositioned" to putting their own spin on
"Some are naturally drawn to playing with noise," says Wiemann,
a UMaine associate professor of music who offers advanced courses in
composition for students with portfolios. "Composing is having fun
For other music students, Wiemann also teaches a general music
composition course in which each has to write a woodwind solo, a song
and a chamber work for more than two instruments. Students also have
to develop an electronic piece from sounds that they record and modify
The bottom line is how to effectively communicate through music.
Composing and performing are not always symbiotic. Typically,
performers interpret the music on the page. Seeing and hearing music
often triggers a different
response in composers.
Wiemann remembers being a junior high school student contemplating
becoming a singer/songwriter until she found herself in the choir and
thinking, "Some of this music doesn't work and I can do better."
Many a composer starts just that way.
In any given year, Wiemann has three or four student composers who
come to UMaine with portfolios and a desire to perfect their passion
with her mentoring and the advice of other School of Performing Arts
faculty. Each comes with different skills, educational needs and
Wiemann mentors one-on-one, com-poser to composer.
"I respond to what they do, suggesting ways
to make (the music) clearer and better for the performers," Wiemann
says. "They have to write with the goal of satisfying the performers,
the audience and themselves. For instance, if they're writing music to
portray a certain mood, they need to be sure the performers are
getting that off the page and can then get that across to the
Some student composers Wiemann has taught have gone on to careers in
music. They include Juraj Kojs, who was introduced to electronic music
studying with Wiemann and who is now completing a doctorate in
composition and music technologies at the University of Virginia.
For other young composers, writing music remains a preoccupation.
It's hard to predict how much composing will be part of a student's
life once he or she graduates, Wiemann says. Few composers make a
living at writing. They arrange, teach, perform. Often composing is
what they do on the side.
Not all student composers are music majors. But if Wiemann mentors
them, they are serious about fine-tuning their art.
Student composers' works debut on campus in UMaine musical ensemble
performances. This spring, a student composers' concert featured new
and original works by artists that included junior Sara Richardson and
seniors Philip Trembley, Seth Morton and Robinson Marks.
The musical styles varied widely. The works were short, no longer than
eight minutes. One or two of the pieces brought to mind works by
"Young composers have been inspired by various people and that's OK,"
says Wiemann. "Part of this has to do with learning as they're doing.
"It doesn't matter that it's all new. The
minute the piece is finished, it's not new anymore any way."
Success is "getting pieces off the ground." The composers cross their
fingers that the new media technology in the electronic pieces doesn't
glitch and the performers don't look at the music and say it's too
difficult or unworkable for their instruments.
It's a "grounding" experience for any composer.
"For some of them, this is a way of communicating, contributing and
making connections with colleagues, with faculty members and
performers of their music," says Wiemann. "Getting people to play the
pieces and writing for pre-established ensembles are the basic ways
composers interact with the musical world."
Philip Trembley is a percussionist and a composer. But ne'er the twain
He is passionate about percussion because of its diversity,
versatility and challenge. Percussion instruments — from timpani,
tambourine and triangle to marimba and vibraphone — provide "a full
spectrum of sound." A percussion performance is as exciting to hear as
it is to watch.
"You have to practice 10 times more because of the different
instruments and their respective techniques," says Trembley, a
fourth-year music major who came to UMaine from Newport, Vt., to study
with percussionist and Professor of Music Stuart Marrs. "I spend time
learning to play rather than composing for it."
When it's mood and emotion he wants to evoke, Trembley prefers to
compose for other instruments.
"It's hard to get emotions out through
percussion instruments," Trembley says. "It's always good to walk out
of a concert hall having heard a piece that sounds cool, but it's a
whole other thing to hear a work that moves you to tears or makes you
think. That's the kind of music I'm drawn to personally and what
influences my compositional style."
Trembley, whose influences include composers such as Philip Glass,
Rachmaninoff, James Horner and Ihsahn, who founded the Norwegian black
metal band Emperor, writes most in the 20th-century contemporary
classical genre, but also actively performs and composes within the
underground rock and metal genres.
"My compositions tend to be on the darker
side," Trembley admits. "I'm more attracted to darker sounds, which is
why in percussion I'm drawn to timpani the most. If you hear one of my
pieces, chances are you'll hear it in a minor as opposed to a major
For Trembley, composing often begins by making two decisions: the mood
to convey and instruments to use.
"I like to play the melody in my head,
starting on piano. Then I switch through brass and woodwind and
strings, hearing what strikes me as the best sound for this particular
melody. The best part is I can do this while driving or walking to
The piano was the instrument that started Trembley
in music. When he was 7, his mother suggested piano lessons as "an
important part of growing up."
"I didn't agree then, but I do now," he says.
From piano, Trembley moved to the saxophone and other instruments. But
at 12, he informed his parents he wanted to be a drummer.
Then as a high school junior, Trembley took a course in the use of
Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) and wrote his first
compositions. In Terrorem for string quartet was performed in Vermont
as part of the MIDI project. One of his favorite compositions is a
work for brass quintet called The Alarum, depicting the heat of
When he graduates next year, Trembley plans to attend graduate school
to pursue his other passion — digital recording. His goal is a career
that would allow him to be a freelance performer, composer and
"I'm particularly interested in the
technology behind recording. It's great as a composer to come up with
an idea, record it and be able to change this or that. It's all
When Seth Morton enrolled at the University of Maine in 2002, he was
torn between two passions. He majored in music his first year, then
"chemistry won out." Sort of.
"I can't imagine not doing music," says the
fifth-year senior chemistry major from Lewiston, Maine, "but I decided
I was more interested in writing stuff so others could sound really
good. I'm not a soloist. I have a band sound. It's like how some
choral performers sound better in a group than by themselves."
Morton is a tuba player in four UMaine music groups — the Pep,
Marching and Symphonic bands, and the Brass Ensemble. At UMaine
athletic events, the Pep and Marching bands have performed nearly 30
of his musical arrangements.
Last November, the 63-piece Symphonic Band debuted his original
composition, The Passing of the Torch, a work depicting the setting of
the sun and rising of the moon that took him a year to perfect.
"The Passing of the Torch is my favorite because I put so much into
it," Morton says. "It also was outside of the box for me. In the words
of Beth Wiemann, I'm usually very conservative when it comes to
composing: I like to stay in one key, maintain a very simple chord
structure and stay with things I know. With "The Passing of the
Torch," I tried to move away from that and get out of my comfort zone.
What I wrote is a very difficult piece. I put it in a key with a lot
of flats and intentionally wrote hard parts for effect. I wanted it to
be challenging and fun for the band, and exciting for the listener. I
want it to produce goose bumps."
Morton has been composing and arranging music since ninth grade, about
the time he turned from his sax to a piano. "I'd practice," Morton
says, "but not what I was supposed to. Instead of classical pieces,
I'd usually make up things. I was listening a lot to Jim Brickman at
the time, playing in his style."
One day he asked his school's band director
to let him borrow a tuba for a week. With the help of one of his
uncles, Morton learned to play it in that time. The tuba quickly
became his favorite instrument because it has "the lowest voice in the
"It's got a very dark sound and a huge range for a brass instrument,"
In his junior and senior years in high school, Morton did an
arrangement of Amazing Grace for the school chorus and wrote A New Day
on Saturn, an original composition, for the band. They were his first
large works incorporating more than one texture or instrument.
For Morton, composing and arranging is a colorful process.
"I visualize my music just as I do chemical structures,"
he says. "Both have color. Different chemical compounds I assign
different colors depending on what's in them or what they do. In
music, there are colors in my head depending on the mood or key or
Following graduation this spring, Morton is headed to graduate school.
But again, he's torn between fields of study — chemistry and nuclear
His goal is to one day teach general chemistry at the college level.
And to get some of his arrangements and original compositions
"Musically, my goal is to have some band
call me and say they really like my stuff. Even if it's an elementary
school band. In fact, I would like to write elementary band music
because there's just not that much good stuff out there. It's like
drawing rainbows with three colors instead of a box of 64 colors."
Sara Richardson knows the million-to-one odds that a young artist can
make it as a singer and composer.
She just doesn't see any reason she can't be that one in a million.
"From my dad, I learned that anything is achievable,"
says Richardson of her biggest musical influence, who is a pianist and
singer. "Both my parents are huge supporters, making it easier to
Richardson has been singing all her life, but it wasn't until her
junior year in high school that she really found her voice.
"Before I got a lead in a play, I'd been an extra all my life,"
She says. "I started taking singing lessons to keep up my voice for
the show and that's when my teacher said I've got something."
Richardson studied music at Wheaton College for one semester before
transferring in 2005 to UMaine, closer to her Washington, Maine home.
Richardson's first original composition was performed in public last
The piece, Untitled, which she performed on piano accompanied
by two of her friends, was written after a relationship breakup. The
new music took her five minutes to compose.
"It's kind of beyond my control," says Richardson of the process of
writing music. "I don't necessarily think of it as a conscious effort.
Usually, I get a feeling that I have to write a song, and I go find
the chords on the guitar.
"I find I can only write the words after I've found the music," she
"Music is a language in itself. Once I find
what I want to express in musical notes, I can back it up with the
Richardson is a soprano in the folk/Indie tradition whose music is as
thoughtful as it is optimistic and sometimes whimsical.
"I see life as something we shouldn't waste trying to figure out.
There's energy wasted being confused and depressed," says the junior
majoring in music. "I hope listeners feel at peace with my music. I
hope it allows them permission to relax and a chance to take a deep
When she graduates next year, Richardson is bound for Boston or New
York City. She hopes to perform and find a record label.
"Music has an important role in my life.
I've come to terms with that fact that it's my first love. I would not
be complete without it. It's something I know I'm supposed to live
Ten years from now, Richardson says with a laugh that she hopes to be
picking out a dress to wear down the red carpet at the Grammy Awards
ceremony, or deciding what song to perform at the Lincoln Center at
the honorary concert of her idol, Joni Mitchell.
"We all have control of our own destinies,"
Richardson says. "My contribution would be living proof that if want
to, you can be anything ever want. Absolutely."
Even though music has always been part of Robinson Marks' life, his
quest to find his place in it — and finally appreciate its depth and
breadth — took a circuitous route.
The California native grew up hearing classical music recordings and
his dad's stories of being a rock drummer. But it wasn't until Marks
was a member of a church choir for five years beginning at age 7 that
he got his first "rigorous immersion" into powerful musical
In instruments, Marks first took up the trumpet in grade school. In
high school he got a guitar from his father which he started to play
more and more. Later, piano and drums.
In high school in Orono, Maine, he formed a rock band, Husqvarna, that
performed some jazzy fusion that "was like James Brown and Hermann
Melville together in the same room" Marks also started writing.
Marks studied at McGill University for three semesters. Afterwards he
joined a band named Shoot the Piano Player and played drums. When the
power-pop-styled group relocated to New York City, Marks studied at
the Institute of Audio Research in Greenwich Village for a year.
"I was learning about recording music and the different techniques
that influence the ways music comes out of the speakers," says Marks.
"But I came to realize that I wanted to delve more into the purely
musical side of things. That's when I came back to Maine to finish the
degree I started in Montreal."
Since enrolling at UMaine in 2004, Marks says,
"I've been exposed to a
huge variety of music. Sometimes it feels daunting as a composer,
trying to assimilate all that, but really I like all the variety too."
On any given night at his part-time job as a dishwasher in a local
cafe, Marks is listening to rock by My Morning Jacket, the music of
Steve Reich's ensemble, songs by Beach Boy Brian Wilson and melodies
of Raymond Scott, which were adapted to countless Warner Brothers
"I like the idea of doing a lot with a little," says the senior music
major. "Some might call this minimalist, but really the idea is at
work in all sorts of music-- not only some classical--folk, hip hop,
and of course pop music does that too. Recently I've been interested
in emulating Steve Reich's music, and also Bartok's to some degree.
The concept makes sense to me especially because I'm not super
virtuosic at any one instrument."
For a student composers' concert on campus, Marks contributed an
electronic piece for keyboard. He's thinking about writing a work for
a jazz combo. And he plans to compose a trio for piano, cello and
violin, the instruments his mother and two brothers play.
"My musical inspiration has come from
different composers, bands and music teachers. But a fundamental
influence was my dad. I'd be playing drums with him, and he was always
saying to keep it simple, to stop doing crazy drum fills and keep the
by Margaret Nagle
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