Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Undergraduate Issue

Volume 26 Number 2
Spring 2004

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Alexandra du Bois
Alexandra du Bois
©2004 Tyagan Miller

Jeffrey Stanek
©2004 Tyagan Miller

Inspiration: Variations on a Theme

by Ryan Whirty

Artistic inspiration comes in different forms for different people. Indiana University Bloomington senior Alexandra du Bois, for example, draws encouragement for her music from current events and the feelings they stir in her. Meanwhile, sophomore Jeffrey Stanek, one of du Bois' colleagues in the IU School of Music's composition program, is motivated by the backgrounds and talents of the Music School's teachers and students.

And inspiration, it seems, is both intensely singular—"To tell the truth, I mostly write for myself," says Stanek—and amazingly diverse—"I'm always looking for it, but it never comes from the same place twice," says du Bois.

Regardless of what it is or where it comes from, inspiration has served du Bois and Stanek very well.

A native of Virginia Beach, Va., du Bois first picked up a violin at age 2 and immediately began studying the instrument intently. By age 15, she was composing music, a pursuit that soon became her passion.

In 1998, du Bois moved with her parents to Boston, where she enrolled in the Longy School of Music in Cambridge and eventually studied full-time at the University of Massachusetts' Boston campus.

When it came time to select a college, IU emerged early as a possibility, and du Bois decided that Bloomington was the natural choice. After arriving at IUB, she was paired with Don Freund, a professor of music composition who himself has composed more than 100 performed works.

"She has a strong desire to communicate things that will be important and have an impact on the listener," says Freund of du Bois. "She has a persona, this incredible sense of what she wants to show."

A big part of du Bois' musical persona is brooding and moody; in a 2002 article for NewMusicBox, a Web magazine published by the American Music Center, du Bois calls her music "very dark and unrelenting." It's a tone she says she derives partially from the headlines of the day which, to her, can be both ominous and poignant, traits that show up in her work as well.

One piece birthed from such inspiration was Requiem for the Living, a string quintet inspired in part by Sept. 11 and its aftermath. When du Bois, now 22, learned about the critically acclaimed Kronos Quartet's Under 30 Project§a contest designed to recognize young composers and mark the quartet's 30th anniversary§she jumped at the chance to enter Requiem.

A longtime admirer of Kronos's unique sound and approach to music, du Bois sensed that Requiem would be a natural fit for the quartet. But she also knew from the beginning the competition would be fierce; in all, Kronos received more than 300 entries. "I could just hear the sounds of Kronos in it," she says, "but it was a shot in the dark."

She submitted the piece in spring 2002 (she admits she sent her entry on the deadline day). A few months later, in early fall, du Bois, wiped out by the flu and looking for some rest, came home after an opera rehearsal to find two messages on her answering machine. One of them was from David Harrington, Kronos's founder.

"When I first heard it," she says, "I wasn't sure what it was. I had to listen to it three or four times."

Eventually, though, it sank in: Harrington said Kronos loved Requiem. She had won the competition—and the $5,000 commission to write a piece especially for the quartet.

At that point, du Bois says, "I did something very out of character. I literally jumped up and down."

For his part, Harrington glowed about du Bois and her talents. "We were guided by our instinctive response to the emotional power of her music and the great promise her work exemplifies for the future," he says in a press release on the quartet's Web site.

But du Bois had little time to celebrate her success. In October 2002 she traveled to Texas to meet with Kronos members and hear a few of their concerts. By that time, she says, she was already well into her commissioned project, and she was running into some problems.

"I had a big writer's block from the gravity of it all," she says. "I wanted to make sure that what I wrote, I would believe in very strongly."

After a couple months, the process started to flow.

"It was difficult at first because I had so many different ideas," says du Bois. "But in January and February I started getting a feel for it."

Du Bois was inspired by the tone in the country at the time, as the push for war in Iraq slowly gained steam. She was dismayed by "the push and pull of those for and against the war," a situation she describes as "stupid (and) horrible."

The result was String Quartet, Oculus pro oculo totum orbem terrae caecet, a Latin translation of "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," the enduring commentary made by Mahatma Gandhi.

After a few days of rehearsal, the famous quartet debuted the piece on April 5, 2003, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Kronos eventually played du Bois' composition several times, alongside works by Egyptian musician Midhat Assem, bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, Malian composer Rokia Traor™, Russian composer Vladimir Martynov, and jazz great Charles Mingus, among others.

Looking back, du Bois says, the Kronos experience was ultimately a chance for growth. "The real greatness was working with them and learning from them," she says. "It's been an incredible learning experience."

At first glance, it might not seem like premier composer Carlos Surinach and Jeffrey Stanek have much in common. Surinach was born in 1915 in Barcelona, Spain; Stanek was born in Madison, Wis., in 1984. Surinach studied at several German conservatories in his early years; Stanek is a sophomore at IUB. Surinach died in 1997 at the age of 82; Stanek is a fresh-faced 20-year-old.

But despite their differences, Surinach and Stanek share a key trait: their passion to compose music. And in June 2003, their names became formally linked when Stanek, then 19, earned the Carlos Surinach Prize, given to the two youngest winners of the BMI Student Composer Awards competition.

With the honor, Stanek was earmarked as a promising young composer with the potential to follow in the footsteps of figures such as Surinach. But Stanek is keeping the award in perspective.

"You can win a lot of prizes when you're young," he says, "but it's not a certain thing that you'll grow up and be big and famous."

Still, those around him at IU see something special in Stanek. "He's very talented," said music professor P.Q. Phan of Stanek in a June 2003 Indiana Daily Student article. "He composes with more than just passion or emotion. His motivations are more intellectual."

Freund, who has worked closely with Stanek at IU, also lauds Stanek's abilities. "Jeffrey is very thorough, very thoughtful, very precise," he says. But when all is said and done, Freund adds, "his actual product speaks to the heart."

Like du Bois, Stanek has been composing music since childhood. "Music has been a primary focus since elementary school, when I started writing," he says.

Recognition came early. In 1997, when Stanek was just 13, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra performed his orchestral piece Sunburst. In 2001, he won the Wisconsin Alliance for Composers Student Composition Contest, and a year later he received an honorable mention in the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer contest.

But his biggest coup came last year when he won the Surinach prize for Fantasies & Dances, a piece for solo violin. (Incidentally, the 2002 list of BMI contest winners included two other IU students, Ben Jacob and Joseph Sheehan.)

The winning piece actually sprang from a class assignment, one that became a semester-long project and, as it turned out, the first work Stanek composed at IU. He was given the task of writing a solo piece. Being a cellist himself, he decided to produce a piece for strings.

"The point of the piece was to explore all the techniques and colors of the violin in a traditional framework," he says.

Originally, he planned to write a handful of separate shorter works, a collection of "six one-minute dances." But eventually, he says, "I strung them together into one coherent piece." The end product is rhapsodic: "It has a frenetic, angry, fast undertone," says Stanek, "but it's really romantic and yearning."

While he was thrilled to win the BMI award, Stanek also sees an irony in such competitions honoring young composers.

"When you win a prize like this, it's established composers deciding what is good music," he says, adding, "that's not necessarily a good thing."

For music to stay fresh, he says, young writers shouldn't simply compose works for their elders or for critics. It's more important, he says, that composers please their intended audiences§and themselves.

"I put a lot of work into being able to express what I really want in music," he says. "If I can do that successfully, I think it's possible to speak to a lot of people."

Stanek says his method of composition frequently begins with "an undeveloped impulse" to write a piece. As more concrete ideas emerge, he works with the piece's structure.

"Traditionally, it's a sectional type of thing. I take it in chunks, and I have to take a certain amount of time and figure out what notes, what rhythms, what textures to put in there to contribute to the effect I want.

"I get an idea and work down from there," he continues. "I ask how I can improve it and how I can get it across to an audience."

That ability to connect with the listener is a skill both du Bois and Stanek are sharpening at IU under the tutelage of, among others, Freund and Professor of Music Sven-David Sandström, whom both students cite as a major influence.

Freund says the IU composition program is fraught with challenges for young students. In addition to composition classes, majors must pass instrumental performance standards, perform in various ensembles on campus, and undertake the same music history and theory classes other music majors do. Fourteen-hour days are quite common.

It's a tough haul, but Freund says those who make it through the program possess rare and special aptitudes. "(The program) definitely makes a lot of demands," he says. "But these kids have such energy, such enthusiasm, such a sense of purpose."

And indeed, both du Bois and Stanek praise the Music School and its ability to shape young composers.

"I've never been disappointed with IU," du Bois says. "It's a unique place, and in the Music School, the ratio of amazing performers is just so high."

Stanek says one of the school's biggest strengths is the presence of so many able and ambitious students who feed off of and inspire each other.

"I enjoy the fact that there are a lot of talented musicians around who are dedicated to the different kinds of music they create," Stanek says. "It's important to be around a lot of accomplished musicians in order to know what can be done."

When all the factors combine, the IU program becomes a crucible for aspiring composers to hone their art and their aspirations for the future. Both du Bois and Stanek are keeping their options open and hesitate to predict where they will go from here, but one thing is clear: "Composing is the most important thing in my life," says du Bois. As Stanek puts it, "it's not fulfilling to live without music."

Such simplicity of focus is inspired and inspiring. For du Bois, Stanek, and young composers like them, it's about nothing more—or less—than the music.

Ryan Whirty, a freelance journalist, is working on a master's degree in journalism at IUB.

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