Have flute, will travel

by Artist Development Fellow

Zachary Sheets ’13, a resident of Pforzheimer House concentrating in Music, Romance Languages and Literatures, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to pursue composition study at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival. Sheets is a member of the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra (co-principal flute and piccolo), and Dunster House Opera orchestra. He has had compositions performed by the Bach Society Chamber Orchestra and Brattle Street Chamber Players and was the winner of the Bach Society Orchestra’s Composition Competition in 2010 and 2012. He is President of the Harvard University Composer’s Association which recently produced the "New Music Week" at Paine Hall. After post-graduate study at a music conservatory he plans to become a composer and orchestral flutist.

Thanks to the support of the OFA’s Artist Development Fellowship, I find myself in sunny Italy, about an hour train ride south of Milan (though, on Italian time this is somewhere between 90-120 minutes). I’m studying music composition in a small town called Pavia. It is home to the highSCORE New Music Festival, a series of master classes, courses, and colloquia, culminating in a concert of new works by all the festival participants. The chair of the composition faculty is Christopher Theofanidis, a professor at the Yale School of Music, teaching alongside a range of composers, performers, and musicologists from Italy and the U.S.

Each day, four of the student participants present their music in a daily colloquium, discussing their process, thoughts, aesthetic, or approach to composition. Then, the floor opens to questions and comments from students and faculty, kicking off discussions and giving feedback to composers about their works. I presented my music a few days ago, sharing a work for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and percussion that was premiered in the Adams Pool Theater last November, when the Talea Ensemble came for a Harvard Group for New Music Concert. I also showed one of my most recent pieces, for bassoon and piano, which was performed and recorded by Daniel Clark ’12 and Matt Aucoin ’12 (a fellow ADF recipient in 2010) back in May.

Thanks to the fantastic performances I got from Matt, Daniel, and Talea, I was able to share both scores and recordings of each piece. My work sparked an interesting discussion on layering different colors, how to keep intrigue and beauty in a simpler, sparser texture, and some thoughts on continuing to focus and develop motivic material even when the primary emphasis of the piece is on something else (say, for example, color, form, momentum, energy, or time). Since many of the composers were performers, too, we were able to share our expertise with writing for specific instruments. For example, as a flutist, I was able to offer insight into flute writing in some people’s pieces, just the way a violinist gave me some great comments about violin writing in my own music.

The other night after dinner, some friends and I lapsed into a discussion about why we write music. As with college, very often you can learn as much from your peers as from your professors. Why we do what we do – and for whom we do what we do – is an important and easy-to-ignore kind of question. Symphonies and concert halls that play Beethoven are shutting down; why are we writing music that even some of the people who love Beethoven don’t like? Too often at Symphony concerts, the person on my right will turn to the person on my left, and mutter something along the lines of "uh-oh, the next piece is by someone who’s still alive; I hate this new crazy music."

Well, for us, we realized that if we’re writing music that we ourselves are really excited about – music that’s so pressing in our minds that we have to write it down and get it performed – then there is probably enough common ground between us and everyone else that at least some other people might get excited about it, too. For us, it probably won’t be straightforward, easy-listening music – not the kind of light classical music you can idly let wash over you in a hotel lobby – but things that are fragile or cold or bombastic or ethereal can be some of the most beautiful things imaginable, too.

Last night I had the premiere of the piece I wrote for the festival, a string quartet called "What is on the End of a Feather." It was performed in the gorgeous, albeit rather strange, setting of the 19th century municipal courtroom; it made the fabulous Quartetto Indaco look slightly as though they were on trial, but the acoustics were pretty nice. They’re a wonderful up-and-coming Italian quartet, and from day one of rehearsal were superb to work with on my music. I got a great recording, too, which hopefully I could post soon!

[Editor's note: In the following video from Zachary's YouTube page, Zach Sheets and George Fu '13 perform Zach Sheets' "Sonata for Flute and Piano" at the Maliotis Cultural Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, on November 7, 2010.]


I’m headed off to the Mozarteum University in Salzburg soon after this, for a 2-week seminar with the French composer Pascal Dusapin. I’m excited to meet some new composers there and get even more feedback on my music. I’ll also be stopping by the flute course, there, too; though I was awarded this fellowship to study composition, I spent the first half of the summer studying flute in Canada. I’m looking forward to writing another post about my travels in a few weeks, recapping my summer and looking back on all the fantastic experiences that the OFA’s support has helped provide me!

[Caption: Zachary Sheets performs in Banff, Canada.]

[Caption: Palazzo Municipio di Pavia, where Sheets' quartet was performed.]