Oberlin BPI: A Chat with Ian Plansker
Young composer and harpsichordist discusses his creative process and the joy of sharing his work with fellow musicians.
Over the past two weeks at Oberlin Conservatory, the annual Baroque Performance Institute welcomed nearly 75 guests, ranging in age from a 14-year-old former boy soprano to a 92-year-old Baroque violinist, intent on honing their skills with the institute’s 20 internationally acclaimed faculty.
Founded in 1971, BPI is an annual workshop with a focus on the performance of period pieces with Baroque instruments and voice. It offers expert coaching and master classes, and concludes with a student-performed concert. Participants range in experience—from seasoned performers to those new to the world of Baroque performance.
We spoke with one of the younger participants, 15-year-old harpsichordist and composer Ian Plansker, who got the opportunity to perform in and hear a read-through of the opera he composed over the past year. He wrote The Spectres after attending BPI in 2018.
What drew you to start composing in the Baroque style?
When I first started composing, it was because I saw composition as a different and perhaps more effective way to alter the course of music in history. Not only do I find it very mentally stimulating and entertaining in a sense, but I also see it as a very effective way to make my mark on music and hopefully bring a lot of joy to other people. In seventh grade, I wrote a piece for my school’s orchestra, and the joy that I saw people experience was such an enthralling moment that I was really encouraged to keep composing.
In terms of writing in the Baroque style, I think it came more or less with my fascination with that era of music. I find there is so much color and diversity of sound in Baroque music, and I sought to capture that in my own composition, which is really why I started writing in that idiom.
How has BPI influenced you as a musician?
Before attending Oberlin’s BPI, I knew that I really enjoyed period performance, but I had no idea that it was such a viable career in today’s world. After attending BPI and being encouraged by all of the fantastic faculty there, I learned that it’s definitely a viable career. The community in the historical performance world seems a lot more welcoming and open to me, less competitive, and I find that really inviting. They’re all so smart; you can have countless conversations. There’s so much to learn and so much to know in the historical performance world. I had no idea there were other people in the world that would sing Rameau opera chaconnes with me at 1 o’clock in the morning!
So let’s talk about your opera, The Spectres. What influenced your writing?
I knew that I wanted to write some sort of large-scale vocal piece in the Baroque style at some point. I wasn’t entirely sure that a performance would be possible. But I figured I may as well try writing something for BPI and see what could happen.
I took a lot of inspiration from the “ballad operas” of 18th-century England, which was a genre coined by John Gay and Johann Pepusch. They are operas that combine a lot of aspects of plays within them—so you’ll have musical numbers and then acting, and then musical numbers. The reason I chose that style specifically was because when Gay was writing ballad operas, he was writing them more for the people and less for the aristocrats. That’s how it previously was in the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theaters in England. I thought that would be a great way to, perhaps, start a new trend in writing historical operas because I think that would be a great thing to have in the historical performance world. I wrote it over the course of three months.
How did the read-through of The Spectres feel?
It was amazing! I had no idea that the singers we would be working with were as expressive and as skilled as they were. And all of the violinists and the gambists were terrific as well. Everyone was very enthusiastic about doing it, which is really what I love to see when I’m doing these sorts of projects. When the orchestra members have a good time and enjoy playing the music, I know that message becomes apparent to the audience and that energy transfers between the two.
What advice would you give to aspiring composers?
Don’t give up! The first year and a half, everything I wrote was abominable. I look back and it’s filled with countless errors. I think the biggest thing that helped me improve was just to continue writing. I learned from my mistakes. Also, a very important thing is to learn the tools of composition. Even if you are going to write in modern styles, I think if you read the treatises and the texts from what was considered proper composition of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, you can start to go in a new direction that is unique to yourself while still maintaining an overall sense of coherency in your music. That can help you create more powerful work.