Student-Composer-Athlete Lifestyle: Inspiration for Classical Album "Nocturnes"

April 8, 2020
Victor Salcido ’21
a young black man writing with a pencil in a book.
Kenny Schafer ’22 Photo credit: Jack Lichtenstein '23

When Kenny Schafer ’22 was 12, the Louisiana native fell in love with jazz and discovered his first musical idol, Claude Debussy. Schafer dreamed of being a composer: “I wanted to pursue music; I knew I could figure out jazz and compose my own pieces.” 

Schafer’s composing style was influenced by the early 20th century French classical music of Debussy, Ravel, and Satie. He began writing by imitating these composers, but soon developed his own style. In high school, Schafer devoted energy into becoming a successful cross country athlete while leaving enough time in his schedule to  compose. When he began his college search, Oberlin’s cross country and track coaches supported his decision to be both an athlete and composer while carrying a full academic workload. Since his first visit as a prospective student, Schafer felt that the Oberlin community fostered an environment that would allow him to carry out his musical inspirations. 

When composing, he often draws inspiration from the concept of nighttime. The very first piece he composed, Dance of the Fairies, is a ballet set during the night. His favorite original work, Spanish Air, takes place during the night. He explains that, “more than 90 percent of my jazz tunes are written in the key of Eb minor, which I consider to be the ‘night key,’ meaning any piece I write in this key is depicting the night.”

Schafer credits his attraction to the night from three qualities: its beauty, its mystery, and its tranquility. “The world of the night is the world in which I can most be myself,” Schafer says. “The pieces of mine that depict the night are the ones that tell my listeners the most about who I am.” 

On January 26, 2020, Schafer published Nocturnes on Spotify. The album addresses loneliness and eliminates the negative connotation associated with it.

The summer before first-year orientation, he composed what would be the first nocturne after reading a passage from Moby Dick in which the main character, Ishmael, described the ambiance when walking through an abandoned snowy town. In this particular nocturne, Schafer attempts to capture the same wandering feel as the passage and would carry it out for the rest of the set. Since Baton Rouge is his hometown, “going to Oberlin was my first time living in a place that snowed… running and walking through Oberlin at night was the perfect model for me to base Nocturnes on.” 

“Loneliness is a state of human emotion, just as happiness is, and is what makes us human,” Schafer says. With Nocturnes, Schafer returned to his roots of French impressionist music but now had developed a voice that was distinct from theirs. Schafer notes that the album, or any piece of his inspired by the night, “seem to be the ones where I feel the most comfortable and most free to explore whatever areas I wish.” 

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