The unstoppable creativity (and fun!) of CompFest

It began as a one-night cabaret and transformed into a four-day event. Welcome to the Harvard Student Composers Festival.

By Annie Harrigan '22

At a time when it can feel difficult and borderline impossible to create art, let alone connect with other artists, one group of student artists is staying close to their creativity and community. Consider Veronica Leahy ‘23. A dual-degree student at Harvard and Berklee College of Music, Leahy is, in her own words, “a performer, composer [and] music lover.” Most recently, Leahy is also a festival organizer and its artistic director.

Produced by the Office for the Arts in partnership with the Department of Music, Harvard Composers Association and Harvard Undergraduate Songwriters Collective, the Harvard Student Composers Festival (CompFest) is the brainchild of Leahy, born out of a desire to connect with other student composers. Running December 2-5, CompFest will put Harvard’s student composers, young alumni, professional guest artists and esteemed music faculty members in conversation with one another and the greater Harvard community. Guest artists include: saxphonist Joshua Redman '91, composer Tania León, Harvard professors Yvette Jackson and Keynote speakersVijay Iyer, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington of Berklee. 

More than 30 student composers from across all genres will be given the chance to broadcast their original work through mentoring discussions with faculty and the CompFest Cabaret, a showcase emceed by recent alum Cahleb Derry ‘20. Student composers are not the only ones who will be in the spotlight. A young alumni panel moderated by Jack Megan, the director of the OFA, will give recent graduates the opportunity to share the work they have done since leaving Harvard with the student composers whose place they were once in.

I had the opportunity to speak with Leahy over Zoom, the same platform that the festival is being hosted on, about CompFest and how it came to be.

“This semester, I’m working at the OFA as a production assistant and CompFest just grew out of some conversations. It started as me being like ‘well, it seems like there should be more opportunities for composers to showcase their work right now,’” Leahy said. “So it started off as ‘maybe we’ll just do a little event’ but it then just grew and grew and now it’s a whole festival.”

When asked how what was supposed to be a “little event” snowballed into a four-day festival, Leahy had much praise for the OFA.

“So it was just going to be a one night thing, but then, once we partnered with the Songwriters Collective and the Composers Association, it sort of became clear to me that there would be overwhelming interest — more than one night’s worth of music," she added.

In our conversation, Leahy mentioned that her guiding principle in organizing the festival was to showcase all the genres. This guiding principle shines through when you look at the lineup of student composers, alumni and faculty featured in CompFest. I spoke with two of the featured composers in the festival, student composer Jenny Yao ‘22 and recent alum Phillip Golub ‘16 about their excitement for and roles in the CompFest.

“In the composing world — it’s already such a small world — and based on the Harvard academic departments, there’s not always a ton of opportunities for composers to connect like in an academic setting, so the onus always falls on individual composers to reach out and connect. So to just have this one event that just brings everyone of all these different styles and genres together is just super great,” said Yao, a contemporary classical musician and composer who has a knack for breaking the conventions of music. “It was also really nice of Veronica to invite me to be on one of the panels with the faculty respondent Yvette Jackson. Being able to generate that kind of student-faculty composer relationships is always super helpful in terms of mentorship.”

Golub, a jazz musician, composer and producer, who will be speaking on the young alumni panel, was similarly excited about the festival.

“Since I’ve graduated, I’ve been involved in the Music Department in some way. I’ve seen it evolve. I’ve seen waves of undergrads come through. I’ve taught a lot of people. I kinda have my finger on the pulse of the undergrad scene a bit, but that’s more on the jazz and creative music side — and a lot of changes have gone on there too,” said Golub. “I’m curious to see what the vibe is at Harvard right now and see where people are at. It’s always interesting to know what people who are currently in college are interested in, what’s coming into their world. I’m looking forward to getting new insight into that.”

CompFest will open with Redman and León, in discussion with Ingrid Monson, professor and charir of the Music Department, as well as a special welcome video from Giddens, new artistic director for Harvard’s Silk Road.

“Josh Redman is such a pro in the way he speaks. I saw him play live a couple times. He’s also the reason I started playing saxophone. I heard him play when I was really little and was like ‘I wanna do that’,” Leahy said in our conversation. “So selfishly, I was really excited to have Josh Redman since he was my first inspiration on the saxophone. He is also just someone who is so well spoken about music and is such a force in the music industry.”

“Tania León is also just such a cool person. She's a classical composer, and she’s had an incredibly successful and amazing career. She also speaks about music in a really gripping way and also brings in her personal history as a Cuban-American. She has a lot of really interesting perspectives that she brings to her music,” Leahy said. “She’s just a giant in the contemporary classical world, and I’m super excited about those two!”

I asked her what she hoped for the Harvard community, musicians and non-musicians alike to take from CompFest.

“Hopefully, we can draw audiences of non-musicians and musicians alike,” Leahy said. “I think my biggest hope for this event is that it just opens up our minds a little bit. I hope that this will expose people to types of music that they never thought they would like because they just never listened to it or never given it a chance. On a surface level, I just hope that everyone has fun. It’s such a great opportunity to cheer on our friends and our peers too, and to just celebrate how amazing they are because we don’t have chances to do that much anymore.”

Harvard Student Composers Festival (CompFest) runs Dec. 2-5, and is free and open to the public. All are welcome. Registration required on the website