Composing History

By Hannah Sturtecky and Amber Garrett | Published by the Columbia Missourian

Ben Colagiovanni, a composition major at MU, has recently been recognized for his work for the Forest Park Forever Foundation through a national music award.

MU student composer works to find his voice

By Savanna Heiney

COLUMBIA — A lifelong desire to explore and experiment has helped an MU student composer win awards and find a compositional voice all his own.

Ben Colagiovanni achieved the highest honors at the Music Teachers National Association's Young Artist Performance Competition in January for his piece, "Forest Park Rhapsody," about St. Louis' storied Forest Park.

Colagiovanni started composing as a boy, and, except for a brief period when he grieved the loss of his grandfather, his musical interest never left him. Now he's a composition student at MU, and he plans to write music for the rest of his life.

An organic musical background

Colagiovanni said his musical career began when he was 3 years old and started taking private piano lessons and composing in Clayton, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.

He was encouraged to compose by his grandfather because they listened to opera music together and talked about music. Then, when Colagiovanni was still quite young, his grandfather died. 

“I immediately stopped playing piano — composing, it was too traumatic, and I did not start playing again for about five months after his death,” Colagiovanni said.

While attending Clayton High School, he started to play in the jazz band.

He attended master classes about composition and entered an original jazz trio piece for piano, bass and drums in both the 2011 and 2012 Creating Original Music Project at MU during his junior and senior years at Clayton High. In the competition, K-12 students submit their best compositions for review. Once the winners are selected, the composers are invited to MU to hear their piece performed by a live ensemble, or they can perform it themselves. Colagiovanni won first place both years.

Colagiovanni also participated in a similar program called the Summer Creating Original Music Project where he wrote his first fine arts piece for an ensemble. He participated in this program twice during his high school years.

William Lackey, who was managing director of the Mizzou New Music Initiative until Friday, said the workshop programs were important to the development of new composers such as Colagiovanni. 

“I think a lot of learning takes place in the classroom, but further learning takes place outside of the classroom in these performances, rehearsals and the side conversations about various pieces," Lackey said.

Colagiovanni decided to attend MU after he won a scholarship through the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation to study music composition through the Mizzou New Music Initiative. Although he considered studying history, Colagiovanni decided to stick with music.

"I'm really glad I'm doing music," he said. "It’s a real blessing to have in my life."

A distinct compositional voice

Both Lackey and W. Thomas McKenney, another one of Colagiovanni's composition professors, compared the young composer to a sponge — he soaks up new influences and uses that material to evolve his compositional style.

"Ben is very diligent at finding new information and absorbing new information and synthesizing that and having it impact his career," Lackey said.

The 22-year-old's compositional voice blends elements of strong melody, varying dissonance, call-and-response and extended tertian harmony, influenced by jazz. For him, composing is an emotional process, he said. He listens to new sounds, delves into art and applies those influences to his work, also.

Colagiovanni’s previous works include a piece for violin and piano, “Dream Chaser,” and a piece for solo piano, “Confluence."

He actively works on his compositions with McKenney each week in lessons to assess and analyze the notation, harmonic and melodic aspects. The lessons help him determine what works and what does not in every piece.

Based on the suggestions of McKenney and performers, Colagiovanni makes the artistic decisions and technical changes to the score and parts of his composition.

Colagiovanni has grown since he first came to MU, and Lackey said much of the compositional process lends itself to evolution.

"That's the thing about composers and finding their voice — that it's specifically them and all their experiences encapsulated into their sound world," Lackey said. "Ben today will not be Ben in a month."

Colagiovanni's “Forest Park Rhapsody,” originated from a 2014 commission by the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation in conjunction with Forest Park Forever’s Leffingwell Society.

The piece was one part of four compositions selected to raise awareness and donations to keep Forest Park beautiful for generations to come. Each of the four sections encapsulates a piece of the park's history . Colagiovanni drew his material from the slideshow that the foundation showed each composer involved in the project.

The instrumentation for “Forest Park Rhapsody” is for a mixed chamber ensemble that includes flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and marimba. It was premiered by the Mizzou New Music Ensemble in April 2014 in Whitmore Recital Hall at MU. The St. Louis premiere for the Forest Park Forever’s Leffingwell Society took place the next month in the Forest Park Jewel Box.

Colagiovanni applauded the interpretation of the piece by the ensemble and specifically spoke to the direction of the group's conductor, Stefan Freund.

"All the musicians and director are very dedicated to making pieces sound good. In that regard as a composer, you really can’t lose," Colagiovanni said.

Audience members are transported through each section by a rhythmic motif used to represent time travel.

The first section illustrates the images of what Forest Park was before it had been touched by humans. The listener can hear it in a light melody and simple structure.

Next, listeners hear a more complicated texture to represent how people cultivated and enriched the state of the park. That section also introduces more instruments and a more lyrical style.

The third section of the piece is tense and dissonant. It represents what happened as Forest Park deteriorated in the 1970s and '80s. The instrumental voices sound more stressed and fragmented, climbing to a peak in a whirlwind of notes, dynamics and sound.

“The most vivid image I get about the park is when you hit the deteriorated section," Colagiovanni said. "Those images stuck with me and are still there.”

The conclusion of the piece poses an open-ended question to the audience about the future of the park. It asks people what they can do to improve the park through a mixture of rich harmony and hopeful melody .

McKenney said the composition combines modern techniques with a more widespread appeal.

“Not everyone in attendance at the renewal of the Sinquefield gift understood all of those techniques that go into 21st century music, but it touched people," McKenney said. "In one sense, that’s the mark of a successful composition.”

Colagiovanni decided to enter what he thought was his best piece at the time, "Forest Park Rhapsody," into the Music Teachers National Association Young Artist Composition Competition. Three judges at each level of the competition looked at elements including melody, harmony, rhythm and notation to pick a winner. All entrants start out at the state level of the competition and, as in Colagiovanni’s case, can rise to be national winners.

Colagiovanni will receive a prize of $3,000 for his accomplishment, and “Forest Park Rhapsody” will be performed at the Music Teachers National Associationconference in April in San Antonio, Texas.

"My greatest joy is for Ben and the external acknowledgement of the quality of work he’s doing as a composer,” McKenney said.

Looking forward, Colagiovanni wants to compose and play as much as possible. He wants to be the best musician he can possibly be.

“I don’t worry about what it’s going to sound like. I just play true to myself, and that usually ends up having a unique sound to it," he said. "At the end of the day for me, staying true to my compositional voice is staying true to the way I feel. If I can do that, I’m doing it right."