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Composition Students Find Home and Inspiration at Meadows, Share Successes - Part 1 of 2

Meadows composition students come from a variety of places with a plethora of experiences and write music for many reasons

By Katrina Leshan (B.M. Guitar '13)

Meadows student writer Katrina sat down with a collection of Meadows music composition majors and learned their stories.  The following is a collection of the six interviews.

Armando Aguirre
Jason Ballmann
Sara Jessica Corry

An Interview with Armando Aguirre (B.A. Music Composition and Advertising, '13)

Armando Aguirre's unique experience with composing during high school inspired him to come to SMU and continue his studies in the field. He recently sat down to tell us about the time his first piece was premiered and recorded by a university orchestra, and about his history with music.

Why did you decide to do music in college?
AA: When I came to SMU I was an engineering major. Then I decided I didn't want to focus on just making money, which is why I was in engineering in the first place. I realized I wanted to do what I truly loved, which was making music, and added on advertising so that I’d have more opportunities when I graduate.

Tell us about your history with music.
AA: I took piano lessons when I was seven but stopped because I hated it. I didn't think I was going to be too into music. When I got into middle school at the age of eleven, I was a percussionist in band. I always gravitated more towards the keyboard instruments, where there are actual tones produced instead of just sounds like on drums. As I gravitated more towards that, I learned how to read music. The next year I asked my band director if I could switch to clarinet, so I spent the summer after sixth grade and the first semester of seventh learning and playing clarinet. After that, my teacher switched me onto saxophone, and I've been playing it ever since.

It seems that you started playing music when you were very young. Is anyone else in your family musical?
Right now I'm the only musical person in my family. All three of my siblings were at one point in band but I'm the only one who stuck to it.

How did your focus on composition begin, and what do you intend to do with it?
AA: What happened was this: I was in band in middle school and high school. I was almost obsessed with band; it was the best part of my day. I really got into the pieces that we were playing. I would look at those scores, and even though I didn't know how to formally analyze them, I was still fascinated. I thought to myself, “Hey, I want to create one of my own, 'cause this is just so cool.” I've always been interested in wind band, so when I was in eighth grade I started writing a piece for it. By the time I was in eleventh grade I had completed it and then in twelfth grade it got performed at Illinois State University, where they recorded it for me as well. 

Was that performance for some sort of competition?
AA: No, no. I know everybody makes fun of me for this, but I'm really obsessed with a composer named David Maslanka, who is very famous for writing wind band music. He's a really big idol of mine, but a lot of people either love or hate him because his music is really strange and difficult to learn. I found a thread on the internet one day where someone posted that they had sent David Maslanka their music and then two weeks later they got their score back and it was marked and full of suggestions. I thought, “You know, that's awesome!” I had written to composers a lot before then but they generally said, “You should reach out to your band director or someone local.” Maslanka gave consideration to young people and amateur composers, so I sent him my score called “A Series of Interruptions” and then sure enough he sent it back and it was all marked up with suggestions. I made all the changes that I thought made sense and kept the things that I was stubborn about wanting to keep. I started to correspond with him through email, and he told me the next step was to get it played. I told him I had been trying because I had been on this journey since eighth grade and had been shut down by all the universities in Texas, including SMU. What he said was, “I have a friend who is one of the best university band directors in this country and he will play your music.” Dr. Maslanka emailed me a few days later and had me email my score to Dr. Stephen Steele, the wind ensemble conductor at Illinois State University. I did, and on September 30th they read the piece and on October 1st they recorded it. That was my first experience and it got me really going.

I definitely hold the encouragement that Dr. Maslanka and Dr. Steele gave me. They were very supportive. When I went up there, I got to hang out with them for two whole days. A couple of months later I went there again to hear the premiere of Maslanka's Symphony No. 8 and everyone still remembered me, and it was so cool! It's nice to have support from people because a lot of folks will see you just writing and writing and writing and will never hear what you do.

Has it always been that easy when you write new music?
Since I've been a student here I've had three brand new things performed, and people are very nice every time. What I have had my eyes opened to is the fact that musicians can be very willing to offer their criticisms, even if you don't solicit them. They feel like it's their duty or obligation to say if notes should be in the music or not. At the risk of sounding too much like, “Oh, I'm a composer, don't touch me,” I'll just say that unless I ask for a critique it's not really what I'm looking for. I just feel that people should respect the ideas of the composers because if the ideas have made it onto paper and that paper has made it to a musician, a LOT of thought has gone into it. I've got drafts and stacks of drafts and things that were crossed out. It's not like I stick things into music without considering the possibilities or the extremities of the instruments. A lot of thought is given to music.

The difficulty is that since we've gone through so much development in music, people think they can critique anything. Music doesn't have to be super complicated.

Speaking of super complicated music, talk to us about the song you had performed in SMU's Student Composition Recital this spring.
AA: In the summer after my junior year of high school, I woke up humming a melody to myself and it stuck in my head so I wrote it down. I came up with a little chunk that was maybe about 20 measures long and put it on the piano. I left it and forgot about it, and then decided later on to write it for five saxophones and piano. One of my teachers suggested I write it for a saxophone quartet instead of a quintet and for marimba instead of piano since piano is so common. I did a lot of variations on the original melody. 

Have you been commissioned to write any pieces yet?
AA: No, but I did have a piece performed in a collaboration with dancers last year and this year. 

What is most important to you when writing music?
AA: I am of the belief that music should have a melody. When I write music, the melody is the most important thing and it comes first. This spring we had a composition seminar every Friday with all the composers, and in our most recent seminar we discussed this. Half the room was saying that music is vertical and should be analyzed by chords, and the other half of the room said that melody is the basis and music is horizontal. When we speak, we speak in a complete thought. That's kind of how I approach writing music; I don't think about chord progressions or about analyzing it in any way. Really at the end of the day I just write music for myself, but the most fundamental aspect is whether or not people want to listen to the music. I don't want anyone to have to analyze my music in order to appreciate it.

An Interview with Jason Ballmann (B.M. '11 in Music Composition with a Focus in Piano; Minor in History)

Jason Ballmann is one of the many Meadows students who chose to study abroad in Paris during his career at SMU. During his interview, Jason shared that experience with us as well as some of the other experiences that have shaped the way he approaches music.

Tell us how you got started in piano and music.
I started playing piano when I was eleven or so, and I did it only to impress this girl that I wanted to date. (laughs) We dated for a couple of years, so I guess it worked out. (laughs) After we stopped dating, I kept playing and really enjoyed it. Composing didn't start until about seventh or eighth grade, when I played around a lot with Finale Notepad. I liked to explore and play around with a lot of ideas, and during high school I studied with a couple professors at Baylor University. I realized that music was my passion and decided to come here and pursue my dreams.

I was in band and played a lot of instruments in high school, but piano was always my main instrument. I have a focus in piano here. I think the performance aspect is a really important part of the training to becoming a composer. How can you write for something if you don't play it yourself? You have to at least know what it's like to be the person reading and performing music.

What comes to mind when you compose music?
I believe that there has to be some kind of inspiration for music. Even if you set out wanting to write a specific kind of music, I believe that it always has to start with an inspiration. It doesn't matter what it is – a little motif on piano that you write out while you're eating breakfast, or a really intense experience like having someone you love pass away. My general process is that first of all I establish a time frame for when the piece needs to be finished and then decide who is going to perform the piece. Then I develop a chart that lays out how long the piece will be, with a form in mind. That's the most critical part because that's the point when you're still objective with the piece. I stick to that skeleton no matter what, because I don't want to stray from the original format. I think it's fine if you want to change a few little things, but you must have really good reasons. You must always be really aware, and have the large picture in mind while composing. The chart is always in front of me at the piano, or wherever I'm writing, because I don't want to get taken away from the original intent. My belief is that most of the time your original instinct is the right one.

Tell us about the piece you premiered at the spring Composition Recital.
JB: 22 Years is a song about the time between when my grandpa passed away and when my grandma passed away. It describes the time that she was alone; a time of great introspection for her. It also describes my age, and my time spent with her while I was growing up. This first movement captures the maturity – or lack thereof – I had when I was twelve and didn't stop to smell the flowers on the way to her house or really pay attention to anything more than I had to.

The second movement is kind of like a mix between an aria and a bustling country jig. It has a character of childhood and youth, so it's very jumpy and jiving. I chose to have an aria there so that we can just stop and look from a different point of view. An aria is a good time to reflect. I was inspired by an opera that I saw in Paris, Korngold's Die Tote Stadt. The aria is known as Marietta's Lied.

The third movement describes the windmill that sat on my grandma's land. It's just this gray, creaky, metal, towering object that shadows a pond. I think that the symbolism is that the windmill is timeless and endless and always turning, and it has a sense of age. It sounds like it is tired, in constant pain. Near the end of my grandma's life, she was in a lot of pain, just like the windmill.

You mentioned that you studied in Paris. How was that?
JB: There were a lot of reasons why I chose SMU, and one of them was the ability to study abroad. It's really feasible to study abroad here, and it was really great for my major to do so. I had never gone outside of the U.S. before, so I was really excited to be in Paris of all places! It's a very important music center in Europe. The numerous new music events that I went to were just packed full of all sorts of people. I got to see so many different art scenes and am so grateful for that opportunity.

What are your plans once you finish at SMU next year?
I'm hoping to go to graduate school for music composition and arts administration. I want to work with a large symphony or an opera organization or something similar. They can have a huge impact on the community and I really want to be a part of that. Like always, I would be a composer by night.

For more information on Jason Ballmann, please visit:

An Interview with Sara Jessica Corry (B.M. '10 - Music Composition)

SaraSara Jessica Corry's experience with multiple instruments taught her to respect and cherish them all. For what she couldn't figure out on her own, Sara came to Meadows School of the Arts to learn. She talked with us recently about how her relationship with music and composition developed at SMU.

Tell me about your history with music.
I first wanted to play the biggest instrument I could get my paws on. I asked my mom if I could play bass, cello, and viola, and she said no to all of them. She said I could play violin in the closet, so I got this really, really nasty piece of work that was probably worth about five dollars. I placed last chair, second violin, in orchestra, but I was so determined to get first chair that I challenged the girl in front of me until she quit. (laughs) I finally got a new violin and made it to first chair. I also got to learn piano, and one of my teachers suggested that I learn other instruments because I picked things up quickly. I took all of my piano music and played it on harp.

Why did you start composing?
When I was about three or four I couldn't fall asleep because, as I told my mom, “There's music in my head! It won't go away, and I can't sleep.” She thought I was crazy, so she took me to a doctor. He told her I wasn't crazy and that maybe I had a gift, so he suggested getting me some music lessons. That's what got me started on piano and then violin. Occasionally I would get music going through my head that wouldn't let me sleep, so I started to write it down. That helped me sleep. (laughs)

Did you come to college with the intent of composing?
SJC: I wanted to be a chemist or a geologist throughout high school, but my mom wanted me to be a composer. I started college as a triple major: harp performance, music composition, and environmental geology. I ended up having to drop geology down to a minor, because I couldn't graduate on time since they were such different fields. I had to drop harp too because I had to have surgery; I do a lot of audio-acoustic stuff and the computer really hurt my arms. I played in the orchestra for two years here.

How do your different instrumental backgrounds influence your writing?
I write a lot of extended techniques for harp. It's one of the hardest instruments to write for, because you have a set of seven pedals, and they have three mechanisms each, and then you have all the strings. There are only a limited number of combinations, if you think about it mathematically, that you can do, so there is only a certain way you can write for harp. In Benjamin Britten's works you can tell that he composed for the piano instead of for the harp, because he uses a lot of five-finger patterns. It lets me write idiomatically for the instrument. Being a composer, I think that I have to be able to write for anything. I think it's in the job description. (laughs)

What kind of music do you write? If you had to put your music in a genre, what would it be?
The thing is, I think a composer should be able to do everything, and that's what I adhere to. I've done everything from video game music to film music to contemporary classical music to barbershop quartets to documentaries.

That's amazing. What inspires your writing?
Almost everything I'm inspired by is literary-based or mathematically based, but my music doesn't really come off that way. You know, you think of something that is mathematically derived as being very harsh and dissonant and not very pretty, but I can make it mathematical while still sounding pretty. I strive for a writing style that is technically advanced but derived from a subject. It's consonant enough so that people who are not musical can still enjoy the concert but it pushes their limits, so that people who have really advanced analytical concepts and ways of thinking can still listen to it and enjoy it.

When you write, do you write about emotions as well?
SJC: I derive music from research. I'll get a commission for something and then look up everything I can to write truthfully about it. Other inspiration comes from books, research, and life experiences. Most of the time it's not emotionally based; only if the subject matter calls for it. I recently won the Voices of Change competition with a song called Ninth of Swords. It was written based on a tarot card that I found on the ground. It's about a girl who is grief-stricken, stuck in bed, with nine swords hanging above her head. She's stuck between a world of reality and emotional injuries. The song is a juxtaposition between both of those worlds, so part of it is really emotionally written and the other section is mathematically driven and complicated and complex, and really kind of scary.

You said that a lot of your work is inspired by literature. What authors do you write about?
Charles Baudelaire; I have a very soft spot for Sylvia Plath; and Bukowski. They're all on the dark side. Bukowski wrote a poem about Wagner that is really beautiful. I have one existentialist electro-acoustic piece that I opened my recital with; it has quotes from Camus and Sartre. Shelby Stanley danced in it, and I incorporated dry ice too. I wanted her to dance through fog because the music kind of goes in and out – I thought that would be cool.

Not every school would let you do that! How do you feel about being in Meadows?
SJC: Oh, I really love being here. I learned a lot very quickly while I was here. It's really nice to have a small, supportive environment that allows that kind of learning. It's still competitive but there's a lot comradeship. It's like a little composition family, which is really nice. Meadows classes are a lot smaller, and it's really nice to only have eight students in my class. If you ever need help, you can always ask. The classes are so small and really tailored to helping us learn. 

What do you plan to do after SMU?
SJC: Next year I'm going to UT for my Master's, and then I'm planning on getting my Ph.D. in musical composition. I'm hoping to make it in the contemporary classical world and make my living composing.

For more information on Sara Jessica Corry, please visit: 

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