Way back in the late 20th century, Jeffrey Payne, pianist and co-founder of the classical music ensemble FearNoMusic (FNM), was judging a Portland composition festival showcasing original piano works by young composers. One piece’s lovely melody really struck him, and he wondered how it might sound on a more sinuous, less percussive instrument.
“Have you ever thought about having this played on the flute?” he asked the composer.
“I don’t play the flute or know anybody who does,” she replied.
That got Payne thinking. Without access to competent, classically trained musicians, how would this budding teenage composer ever have a chance to develop her art form and write music that used instruments she didn’t play herself? It was like asking a promising painter to work with only a single pencil and sketchbook, or a playwright to devise dialogue without ever seeing and hearing how it worked onstage. Sure, maybe by the time she gets to college, she might have an occasional opportunity to work with instrumentalists. But how would she even win admission into such a college without experience writing for various instruments, or an audition tape featuring music for instruments other than her own? With Oregon public schools already reeling from the deep (and continuing) cutbacks in arts education programs, one of the state’s most important wellsprings of creativity was in danger of drying up.
What if, Payne wondered, his own music ensemble might be able to provide that outlet — give young composers in the Western classical tradition the opportunity to hear their music played by classical musicians who embraced contemporary sounds, to offer them vital feedback on how to make their music actually work well for different instruments, and to collaborate with the artists who made their music come alive?
THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series
A quarter century and probably a couple hundred students later, FearNoMusic’s Young Composers Project remains one of the nation’s most productive educational resources for emerging young composers. Many of the works created through the program have gone on to win state, regional, and national awards, and many program alumni have gone on to write music for orchestras and ensembles, theater, television programs, films and more. One composer even went on to write music for theme parks.
With considerable early help from Oregon Music Teachers Association (OMTA), followed by generous grant support from individuals and foundations, as well as continuous partnerships with area music teachers and community institutions, the program now offers up to 30 students each year unique opportunities to explore the art of creating new music for the 21st century.
The process culminates in an annual spring concert showcasing all the completed works, and it can be a truly inspiring experience even for audience members with no connection to the composers. This year, the concerts, featuring 29 new compositions by this year’s YCP students, happen Sunday, April 30 at Oregon Episcopal School Chapel in Southwest Portland. And FearNoMusic celebrates the 25th anniversary of the project this coming Monday, April 17 at 7:30 pm at the Old Church Concert Hall in downtown Portland, with premieres of original music by three YCP alumni composers.
Write, Workshop, Revise, Repeat
Though they didn’t really have a role model for the project, Payne, OMTA’s Sharon Sadilek, and fellow FNM co-founder Joel Bluestone hit on the basic formula early on, and it has endured. Student participants bring works in progress to a first workshop in the fall, where the veteran professional FNM musicians offer feedback on what their respective instruments can and can’t do, and ask a lot of questions, trying to help young composers figure out what they want to express and how to realize it. For example, Payne says, they ask “What is the sound you want here?” “Uh, I kind of want it to sound mysterious.” “Oh, okay, let’s try this combination of instruments. How does this sound now? How about this?”
Most students (grades 5-12) come from the Portland area, including Washington’s Clark County, but others have traveled from Bend, Eugene, and, via Zoom recently, as far away as Seattle, Texas, Florida, and Colorado. Payne keeps in regular contact with OMTA, area composition and music teachers (most FNM members also maintain teaching studios), youth orchestras, including Portland Youth Philharmonic and Metropolitan Youth Symphony (which has recently partnered with FNM in a new collaborative program), who all point promising young composers to YCP. In addition, he’s always encouraging musical colleagues to let him know when they hear a promising young composition talent. Students and parents also contact him directly through the program’s website. Thanks to the support of generous donors, “no one is turned away if their parents can’t afford it,” Payne says.
Depending on grade level and experience, some students might bring in fairly well developed ideas, while others, especially those coming from a songwriting perspective, might just have an eight-bar theme they play on piano. The musicians help them figure out how to develop it further, maybe by adding a contrasting B section to the original A section, or maybe offering tips for variations on the initial theme. For more advanced students, the musicians might offer tips on developing a standard form like a rondo or sonata, even showing them how to orchestrate their concepts. “We get a huge range of pieces and skill levels,” Payne explains.
Each year, Payne chooses a different instrumental combination (usually five players) for the project’s performing chamber ensemble, made up of FNM members and other top performers from the local musical community, which he also conducts. They’ll also help students, who’ve likely seldom or ever worked with so many possible combinations, figure out which instruments should play which parts. There’s a lot of back-and-forth experimentation between composer and musicians as the nascent ideas gradually coalesce into solid form.
After the initial feedback, students get a recording of their work session to take home and use to revise their piece-in-progress. They bring the result to a second workshop in winter, where the refinement continues, and then a third workshop in the spring. As the program has grown to include as many as 30 students per year, FNM now spreads each four-hour workshop over two days.
As I wrote in The Oregonian on YCP’s 10th anniversary, “confronting the real capabilities of musicians and instruments is a principal benefit for YCP composers…. Notes that fall out of the range of real instruments, unplayable chords, ear-wrenching instrumental combinations can be corrected. Composers get immediate feedback from real musicians on what’s working and what isn’t — a rare opportunity — and suggestions on how to revise their work to achieve the effects they want.”
“‘If we didn’t have an opportunity like this where musicians told you what they thought of your work,” as YCP participant freshman Riley Crabtree of Vancouver’s Mt. View High School told me at that time, “you’d write something unplayable, they’d perform it, it’d be a mess, and you’d never learn anything.’”
Community of Composers
The program has grown in sophistication as well as size. Payne and the other FNM musicians, many drawn from orchestras like the Oregon Symphony, are well connected with various elements of Oregon’s classical music ecosystem, and so, when visiting composers come through town to hear their works performed or work with musicians, Payne often signs them up for master classes with YCP students. Recent eminences include some of America’s most lauded composers, including William Bolcom, David Lang, Bang on a Can All Stars, and, this year, Jennifer Higdon, along with local luminaries such as the late Tomas Svoboda, his Portland State University successors Bonnie Miksch, and many more.
“We have taken them to Oregon Symphony rehearsals where the music librarian gives them the scores, so they’re able to sit and watch them rehearse while following along in the score,” Payne says. “You can see them thinking, ‘So that’s what that sound looks like on the page.’” During the pandemic, these activities shifted online.
One of YCP’s most productive partnerships was The Authentic Voice, a collaboration with Metropolitan Youth Symphony (MYS), now in its fifth year. MYS music director Raúl Gómez-Rojas wanted his young orchestra to play music by young composers their own age, showing them by example that musical creativity is something they can engage in right now. (Read my ArtsWatch story about it.) Through The Authentic Voice, YCP composers received the almost unheard-of opportunity to create new orchestral works performed in a full-sized concert hall.
These group activities reflect another aspect of YCP. Along with creating music and future composers, it also strives to create community in a notoriously solitary profession. “In the workshops, we bring kids in as groups so they can hear each other’s pieces and meet each other,” Payne says. “We try to have meet and greets with the kids, receptions, and other group activities. We’ve tried over the years to create a sense that you’re not a weirdo, that there are other kids that do this, too.”
He’s also exploring the idea of group compositions. Last year’s YCP included a dance suite compiled from compositions by each participant, each using a different dance form stretching from the Baroque era through hip hop. Next year, students will gather to jointly create music for an imaginary cartoon.
One composer who’s experienced YCP from both the student (from Pendleton High) and, more recently, the teacher perspectives, is composer Chris Thomas, who attests to the project’s value. Even though his three years in the program happened a couple decades ago, he still remembers details of helpful feedback — “from the most practical to the most heady” — on his own and other students’ compositions, as well as suggestions he’s offered himself in his occasional role as a guest instructor who can focus on big-picture compositional ideas, rather than technical aspects of an instrument. Examples: “That note you wrote for the oboe to play doesn’t actually exist on the oboe.” “That’s a nice tune emerging, but maybe give it a big leap up, make it really big.” “How about shifting it up a half step and taking it into a major key?” “Don’t make the B section the same as the A, make it fresh. Take it in a whole new direction and see if you can build it into this piece. Here are some options.”
Thomas admires how the teaching responds to each student’s particular needs. “Every composer has inclinations and blind spots. Some get locked into narrow repetitive loops,” and for those students, musicians offer ways to break out of the narrow box they’d constructed for themselves. “I’m the opposite — I can’t stop generating crazy ideas and will ramble if you let me. To this day. To students with unhinged imaginations like mine, coming up with something isn’t the problem, but I had to learn how to check the spontaneity and actually develop an idea. ‘All these sections are great, but these are 10 different pieces,’ they’d say. ‘It needs to be coherent, so pick something, now, what else can you do with it?’” His instructor pointed him to Beethoven, the 19th century master of extensive development of small, seemingly insignificant musical kernels, and showed how those little motifs permeated an entire movement or piece.
He also respected their openness to the students’ inclinations. “They never once encouraged someone to write a certain thing. It was always, ‘Okay, I see this is what you’re doing, so let’s work with it. Is it sustainable? Can you actually develop this?‘” he recalls.
Changing with the Times
YCP has evolved over a quarter century along with the music world. Notating scores has become much easier with the advent of computerized composition programs. What once involved painstaking hand rewriting to change a key signature or instrumentation can now be done with a cut-and-paste command, allowing students to hear at least some kind of representation of the sounds with which they’re working. On the other hand, reliance on such software doesn’t always reveal the limitations of actual instruments and players, and allows students to avoid some valuable aspects of music theory. Still, YCP keeps up with the times, recently allowing students to create electronic backing tracks for their otherwise acoustic compositions, as we see so often on stage these days.
The students, too, have changed. YCP only recently started tracking demographics, but Payne definitely sees a lot more gender and racial diversity among participants, and the program is actively recruiting more diverse applicants. “For the past three years the percentage of BIPOC students in YCP is between 30 percent and 37 percent, and we’re always working to increase that level,” he says. While many of their basic influences have remained steady, from classical sonatas to pop tunes to jazz chords to movie scores, today’s students now also listen to a lot of video game music and want to write their own scores, sometimes even to games they’re also developing. Whatever the composer’s influences or means of expression, YCP remains, like FearNoMusic itself, “stylistically agnostic,” Payne says. “Bring us what you have and we’ll do our best to help you achieve the final product you want.”
For all the changes, though, much has remained the same, including the basic write-workshop-rewrite-workshop process. And another constant – the commitment of the participants themselves.
“I see a level of seriousness that hasn’t really changed over the years,” Payne says. “Kids have this outlet for their creativity, they come in and are so excited about what they’re writing and the chance to hear real musicians play it instead of a computer program. Their creativity is being taken seriously and listened to.”
And that, in turn, builds their self-confidence and sense of what they can accomplish. “Young people are under the impression that they can’t do anything older people can do, and then one day we’re going to be adults and suddenly be able to do everything,” Riley Crabtree told me in 2007, “but the truth is, you can get started on your dreams at any age.”
Given how extensive and labor intensive YCP’s process is, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising — though it is disappointing — that he knows of no emulators. “Three workshops? Holy smokes!” said visiting composer Higdon when Payne told her about the program. Any other student composer is lucky to get one, if any at all.
Along with the chance to develop their compositions, YCP participants also get to hear their works performed in a public concert, receive a recording they can use for college auditions or other artistic development opportunities, get a grounding in orchestral instrument capabilities, plus receive the support of an artistic peer community and mentorship opportunities, and more.
“My skill with instrumentation was way ahead of a lot of my colleagues in college,” Thomas remembers. “The thing that really helped was that because I’d been through rehearsals with five professional musicians and I knew how to put a rehearsal together. That’s an unexpected skill that came through the process. Kids have also talked about understanding music as a composer, learning to think like instrumentalists, thinking off the [score] paper, thinking about the end product, how the audience will experience it.”
YCP’s benefits can extend long beyond the final concert. For Thomas, it provided him with three of the six recordings for his college application. He eventually decided to study film music at the University of Southern California’s acclaimed graduate program in Los Angeles and built an award-winning career composing music for movies, television, theme parks, apps, video games, and concert halls, including Carnegie and the Hollywood Bowl. He’s far from the only YCP alum who’s gone on to professional music success. Another, Ryan Francis, recently moved back home to Portland and now helps run YCP.
Thomas gives back to the program that launched his composing career by serving as a guest instructor and by mentoring another student from Central Oregon who’s following a similar path. Payne says he now has “grandkids” in the program, students of his students, and now has a network of YCP alumni he can connect to today’s YCP students for mentoring and advice.
One of Thomas’s trips back to Los Angeles inspired his new work, Echoes of Light, commissioned by FearNoMusic, which is the centerpiece of Monday’s Generations concert commemorating YCP’s 25th anniversary. “I was in downtown L.A. one night, walking through garbage and broken glass on the street,” he recalls, when he noticed that when cars would flash by, their headlights would throw colorful reflections of the colored glass onto the walls. Thomas, who has synesthesia, “heard” the blue light in the key of D. “The little blue shards of light were dancing around, multiple waves of it almost echoing off the walls. I decided to write a kind of fractured, pointillistic music bouncing around the room live. The more Baroque I started making those echoing light figures, the more I started to simplify the harmonic language, almost like I was reaching back and sounding a little bit like my younger self.” It’s an apt completion of the circle that began with his own YCP experiences.
Although Monday’s Generations show is the official YCP anniversary concert, FearNoMusic has devoted most of this season to celebrating YCP’s legacy with compositions by program alumni, and ArtsWatch has been covering them, as well as earlier YCP shows. Besides Thomas’s Echoes of Light and his talkback with the audience, Monday’s concert also features new music by YCP alumni Vincent Nguyen and Caleb Palka.
While this season’s legacy celebrations have afforded FNM a rare opportunity to look backward, the group’s music is all about today, and YCP is about tomorrow. Payne is looking forward. While he’s proud of what YCP has been able to do for the students that find it, he’s acutely aware that Oregon’s arts education budget cuts and other sources of inequality prevent too many potential composers from developing their creativity in the way YCP participants have been fortunate to do.
“The kids coming to us are studying with private teachers or coming from schools that have band or choir directors,” he acknowledges. “They have some access to music. Unfortunately, Young Composers is dependent on that system, on teachers hearing those kids and saying, ‘hey, you should develop this talent. Let me tell you about Young Composers Project.’ But what about the kids that are out there who also could benefit from this but never heard of YCP? If there’s a young talented composer from a school with no music teacher there, what happens? That’s the problem.”
And he’s trying to address it, though he’s not yet able to announce details. “We’re in the process of expanding Young Composers, working with a couple of nonprofit organizations in town and specifically trying to develop a program more geared toward kids who don’t have the same opportunities as kids studying with a private teacher does,” he says. “It’ll focus on basic creativity through music, learning to write it down in some form. It’s intended to provide greater access for BIPOC and low-income students. “
Payne has learned from teaching Oregon teens all these years that there’s a vast need for enabling students’ musical creativity — and just as vast a potential.
“The amount of creativity out there is unbounded,” Payne insists. “Not just in music and composing, but in all forms of creativity. Providing a foundation, an outlet, and resources to develop it is so essential.”
He often thinks of an 8th grade student he taught at YCP some 20 years ago. She came to the first workshop radiating a nervous, but also seemingly dismissive attitude familiar to anyone who knows insecure teens of that age — or has been one.
“She’d never had anyone take her creativity seriously,” he remembers. “All of a sudden, she realized we weren’t going to be laughing at her or criticizing her. And there was a complete change. She started to engage: ‘I want this, can we do this?’ It was the first time she had somebody really seriously look at her creative ideas, who communicated, ‘Your creativity really is valuable, and we’re gonna help you with it.’
“There’s so many kids looking at society downplaying that kind of creativity, but by giving them that attention, we’re reinforcing that this is valuable. We will listen to you.”
FearNoMusic presents Generations 7:30 pm Monday, April 17 at The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., in downtown Portland. Tickets by donation. Visit their website to reserve tickets. This year’s “Hearing the Future’ concerts featuring 29 works from this year’s Young Composers Project students is at 1:30 pm & 4:00 pm, Sunday, April 30, Oregon Episcopal School Chapel, 6300 SW Nicol Rd, Portland.