Composing across the Globe

School of Music's newly renovated composition studios
School of Music’s newly renovated composition studios

Half an hour before the premiere of a 5-minute marimba solo he created, then freshman Tyler Entelisano was sitting in Dr. Amir Zaheri’s office in the Moody Music Hall. It was the first time one of his compositions would be played for a live audience, and it was his first week in college. Not surprisingly, Entelisano was nervous.

“Dr. Zaheri asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee,” Entelisano recalled. “And though at that time I wasn’t a big coffee drinker, I knew that this cup was about more than coffee. It was a way to bond and a sign that everything was going to be fine.

“To this day, that has to be one of the best cups of coffee I’ve ever had,” Entelisano said. “The premiere went well, and I impressed a lot of my colleagues and professors, but for some reason, I remember that cup of coffee and the sentiment behind it the most … After that day, I truly felt like a part of The University of Alabama composition family.”

Four years have passed since Entelisano’s first premiere, and during that time he has had his music performed around the country and around the world. But he’s not the only one. In fact, UA’s composition program is teeming with student successes.

In the last year alone, undergraduate and graduate students alike have participated in six international competitions, festivals, and performances; 10 national conferences; and seven national music festivals—not to mention the dozens of prestigious student competitions, conferences, and performances they contribute to annually.

To participate in these festivals, competitions, and performances, the students submit their works to selection committees who choose only a few out of hundreds of submissions.

Elliott Callaway, a recent New College graduate who studied music composition, was competing against the nation’s biggest pop stars when he won first prize for the best new song in the nation from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers singer-songwriter competition.

School of Music's newly renovated composition studios
School of Music’s newly renovated composition studios

“Our students’ works are being performed worldwide and are winning some of the biggest, most impressive contests,” said Dr. Craig First, one of two composition professors at UA. “And what’s remarkable is that these performance opportunities are open to seasoned composers … The students are competing against professors at various prestigious institutions and composers who are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. We’re doing very, very well.”

In December, Entelisano’s electronic composition Brake was premiered at a festival in  Italy, and he will be traveling back for two additional festivals there this summer.

“I get excited because when the students start to see their work being recognized by major ensembles at major venues or in conferences and publications, they get even more enthusiastic, and it becomes a sort of success epidemic,” Zaheri said. “Right now our success is sort of a self-sustaining thing, and I have never seen a group of students with as much comradery and support for its own community.”

No matter how many times his work has been performed, however, Entelisano says he always gets nervous before a premiere.

“It’s every bit as much of a rush as I’ve ever had while performing,” said Entelisano, who is a percussionist by training. “The spotlight isn’t on you—and no one knows you’re the composer until the end of the piece when the performers make a motion for you to stand up and receive applause—but as you’re sitting there in the audience, it feels like you’re bearing your soul to everybody.

“Everything we write is just so personal, and it shares a little bit of ourselves, so to see the audience’s reaction is surreal. Your heart beats out of your chest, and you sit there holding your breath until it’s over. Then, once it’s over, you just can’t stop smiling.”

Like Entelisano, other students in the program are having success in a wide variety of genres. Though their academic work primarily focuses on traditional concert music, they are creating—and competing in—everything from electronic music, film scores, and video game music to singer-songwriter tracks, R&B, rock, and contemporary.

Zaheri says that while it is unusual to see success in such a wide range of genres from one institution, UA’s focus on composition fundamentals is key to their success.

“Great composition is great composition,” he said. “We’re not so interested in the aesthetic as we are in the architecture, so whether it’s music for a video game, an opera, a film, an art gallery, or a symphony orchestra it doesn’t really matter because the basic principles of excellent composition are the same across the board.

“Some schools focus solely on concert music, but we make room for everyone at the table, and I think that the word has gotten out,” Zaheri added. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve had a burgeoning in applications; we’re pushing back against one of the trends we see nationwide.”

Doctoral student Fillipe Leitao, a native of Brazil, said that UA’s philosophy of composition played a large role in his coming to Alabama.

Prior to joining the UA family, Leitao had studied film scoring in San Francisco. He said that in his time there he learned to compose quickly for the industry, but he felt that his classical background was lacking. He wanted to find a university where he could study concert music more in depth, while still having the freedom to continue working on his film scores.

“I had no idea what Alabama would be like—the university or the state,” Leitao said. “But after talking with Dr. First, I realized that, here, they care about good music. They don’t care what style of music it is; they just like good compositions, so I decided to come.”

Leitao, who eventually wants to teach composition at the university level, has already had his work performed at multiple film festivals, including one in France. Over the summer he will also have a film score performed in New York City.

To develop their musical foundation, students in the program take everything from music history and orchestration to music analysis and counterpoint. They are required to write their scores by hand before they insert the work into the computer, and they also take eight semesters of piano lessons, which are a fundamental part of the composition process.

Within the last two years, the program also received a much-needed makeover for its three recording and electronic studios.

“The studios and equipment were completely outdated, but we got some grants and rebuilt them from the ground up,” First, who spearheaded the project,  said. “I can now say with confidence that the studio is at the top of the SEC. The only problem is that technology is being updated and upgraded all the time, so we need continued support to remain at the cutting edge of this work.”

Zaheri, who received his doctorate in music from UA in 2011 and studied under First, says he has seen the studios at their worst and at their best.

“We truly have gone from a reliable family car to a stunning, state-of-the-art sports car,” Zaheri said. “We are competing with the best, and in many cases, we are winning.

“I get emails and phone calls nearly every week from professors saying ‘I’ve heard a piece from one of your students, and I wanted to let you know that it was fantastic, so whatever you are doing, keep it up. We are so impressed.’”