On Oberlin’s composition students
Prof. Lewis Nielson
“It’s routine for me to be told by our guests that our students are the best they encounter anywhere in the world, not just for the quality of the works they display but also for the incisiveness of their thinking and the well-informed nature of their views.”
What makes Oberlin Conservatory the leading undergraduate school in Composition is, quite simply, the new music community that exists here. We have an excellent faculty, a highly specialized and focused curriculum, and a wonderful array of concerts and guests. But the most central to the health of the program is the continuous, supportive, and basically harmonious interaction of student composers and performers, which has created a strong community of literally 100 majors in the Contemporary Music Division and another 50-odd performers from the Contemporary Music Ensemble and other groups. These students stimulate new ideas and push the level of creative activity to a level unknown at almost any other institution in the US, graduate or undergraduate.
When famous guests come here for a residency, the first thing they notice is this mixture of composers and performers (and also a goodly number of outstanding composer-performers) who are never hesitant to ask questions and have little inhibition in what they are willing and able to attempt musically. It’s routine for me to be told by our guests that our students are the best they encounter anywhere in the world, not just for the quality of the works they display in master classes but also for the incisiveness of their thinking and the well-informed nature of their views. This communal element is a substantial percentage of any Oberlin composer’s education, making our curriculum highly practical and professional in thrust.
During his residency at the Conservatory last May, composer Helmut Lachenmann spent hours upon hours coaching, teaching, and critiquing our Oberlin’s student performers and composers. His extended stay allowed the students to perform his works with his own verbal input in mind, and allowed him to really get to know our students. By hearing, studying, and playing many works by the same composer, we all gained a richer understanding of Lachenmann’s musical voice and ideas. At the end of his time in Oberlin, Herr Lachenmann told me that our students were most interesting, and he was so impressed at their ability to discuss their own and other music with him. Although I am honored, I am not surprised that Oberlin’s composers and contemporary music performers garner praise from such distinguished members of the global new music community.
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