Why write music?

An emerging composer looks to stars in the Vermont sky and travels to the City of Lights in search of an illuminating answer to his artistic question.

By Sam Wu '17 

Sam Wu ’17, a resident of Adams House and joint concentrator in Music and East Asian Studies, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to attend two music programs: New Music on the Point and the European American Musical Alliance. He has studied composition under Tan Dun, Chaya Czernowin, Libby Larsen, Robert Brownlow, and Paul Coleman, along with conducting under Andrew Clark. A finalist for the 2014 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award at Harvard, Wu has been commissioned by the Brattle Street Chamber Players, the River Charles Ensemble, the Harvard Wind Ensemble, and the Hyperion Shakespeare Company. In addition to composing, Wu serves as the assistant conductor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, conductor of the Mozart Society Orchestra and music director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players. He plans to pursue a career in music after graduation.

When I applied for New Music on the Point, I was expecting two weeks of rigorous study, away from any distractions deep in the woods of Vermont. While I certainly ended up with rigorous study and much time with the faculty including members of the JACK Quartet, Hannah Lash ’10, Jason Eckardt, Nils Vigeland ’72, Brad Balliett ’05 and Amy Williams, the largest takeaways for me were in fact with fellow composers and performers, enjoying our downtime by exploring all that nature had to offer us.           

Paddling on Lake Dunmore in Vermont
In residence next to Lake Dunmore, I paddled on the water every day. I felt the chill of dawn mist as I waited for the morning sun; I raced storm clouds and lightning to see a sunset; I pointed out Vega and Polaris and Cassiopeia while being careful not to disturb the pitch black mirror of the lake below me. Within such contexts, in earshot of the song of the loon, I had some of the best conversations with my peers. These conversations didn’t always take the form of words. The moments when we paused to trace the arcs of fireflies or to listen to the silent music of the stars stay with me as much as the discussions we had on synthetic scales and Xenakis, or the state of new orchestral music in the U.S. today. 

Growing up in a city as large as Shanghai, I’ve only ever known what it feels like to rub shoulder-to-shoulder with other people. Being at NMOP gave me space to rediscover my deepest reason for doing art: to express something within myself that is bursting, not to please or impress others, but to bring forth a musical statement I myself would like to hear.

I also returned to the European American Musical Alliance in Paris, France, and it was everything I hoped for and more. I was able to divide my time evenly between composition and the coursework there, rigorous training in counterpoint, harmony, ear training and score reading.

A street in Paris
At the end of it all, I found myself gaining a deeper understanding of the craft and technical framework behind the act of writing music.

While EAMA is about the classical tradition, and its counterpoint and harmony classes are about rules set up in Renaissance and common practice period music, I was also constantly reassessing the meaning of my training in context of being a contemporary musician. In counterpoint exercises, we were abiding by rules more limiting than Fux, and, in fact, true to Palestrina of the 16th Century.

In my own music, I am infatuated with sevenths and ninths (my two favorite intervals), but they were strict no-nos in my homework assignments. Nevertheless, there was a connection between the class content and my work content, an emphasis on discipline. What I learned through counterpoint is a keen eye for detail, a dutifulness to revision and how to set limitations to create a coherent sound world.

Thus lessons of EAMA extended far beyond the technicalities the program is known for. The program also taught me a philosophical lesson, one that transcends aesthetic tastes, influences and musical background, and instead addresses the same question I asked myself at NMOP, but from another angle: “Why are you writing music?”

The Artist Development Fellowship program, jointly administered by the Office for the Arts at Harvard, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships and Office of Career Services, awards 10-15 fellowships annually to promising and/or accomplished student artists and creators who have an unusual opportunity for artistic growth and transformation. The program is open to all undergraduates currently enrolled in Harvard College, and applications are evaluated by the Council on the Arts, a standing committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. For more information, visit the OFA website or call 617.495.8676.