For Theodosia Roussos, Oberlin meant oboe at first.
A native Californian with an expansive array of creative passions, Roussos had earned undergraduate degrees in oboe and literature before arriving in Oberlin to pursue an Artist Diploma with oboe professor Robert Walters.
Once she got here, oboe became only part of her story. She found herself collaborating frequently with the conservatory’s Performance and Improvisation (PI) ensembles. She composed music for herself and for fellow students. She teamed up with the wildly inventive musicians of Oberlin’s TIMARA Department, incorporating field recordings of swamps and storms into her repertoire and gigging with the experimental music ensemble best known by the acronym OINC.
She mashed up Mahler with Thelonious Monk.
“I think I played one Telemann piece on my final recital, and that was the most traditional thing I did,” she recalls, half-jokingly. “The rest were commissions and my original work.”
Walters has long since passed the point of being overwhelmed by Roussos’ artistry.
“When Theo first auditioned for the Artist Diploma program, I simply had no idea how varied her background, talents, and interests were or would become,” he says. “Her eclectic nature and evolving gifts really flowered during her time at Oberlin, and it became apparent to me that she would be forging her own multifaceted path in music.”
After graduating in 2016, Roussos bookended her Oberlin education with master’s degrees in oboe and voice from the University of Southern California, following the pair of undergraduate degrees she initially earned at UCLA. She also starred as Maria in USC’s co-production of West Side Story.
Already, her young career has included performances with the L.A. Philharmonic—among numerous other orchestras from east to west—and engagements with the studio orchestras at Warner Brothers, EastWest Studios, and Coachella.
She’s supported luminaries spanning genres and generations, from Ariana Grande and Josh Groban to Herbie Hancock and Dionne Warwick. She co-created what The Guardian called a “magnetic score” for the Netflix documentary Naomi Osaka. She earned accolades from Opera News for her “haunting and beautiful” opera art film Polymnia and served as vocalist, oboist, and composer with the new music ensemble WildUp. She recorded oboe for the Amazon series Homecoming; performed as soprano soloist for the film Kajillionaire; and she sang, played oboe and English horn, and contributed original melodies for another film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco. She has appeared at festivals from Banff to Bang on a Can, and taken part in countless other projects of various kinds—even pausing to teach private lessons when her schedule allows.
“I met with a career counselor once in college because I felt like I had all these interests and didn’t know what to do with them,” Roussos recalls. “I’ll never forget what he said: Some people like to do one thing and it’s all they want to do. That is not me. My creative thing is that I need these different creative spheres, and I need to keep them all spinning.
“All the skills I’ve learned are transferable,” she explains. “All the hours I’ve spent learning oboe are directly applicable to what I do in other areas. When I’m working on an opera, I’m learning techniques that inform my filmmaking. It’s all related for me.”
In March 2022, Roussos returned to Oberlin for a two-week residency that was as varied as her student experience here. She presented her recent film recordings and scores, discussed her creative processes, held one-on-one sessions with TIMARA students, led two oboe studio classes (and even wrote a piece for 10 oboes), collaborated on original works with four different PI ensembles, coached the improvisation ensemble on experimental techniques in professor Dana Jessen’s Free Music course, and shared her story with professional development classes.
“This place is so important to me,” she says of Oberlin. “It’s like my second home. It’s one of the happiest places to me, because it’s a place I associate with being supported, and it’s a safe place for being part of a musical laboratory.
“I’ve had this sort of winding path to where I ended up, but I’ve created a career that’s very individualistic, and more and more we’re seeing that people need to follow their own intuition in terms of what they need to do in music.”
Peter Swendsen, the conservatory’s senior associate dean of academic affairs and a professor in the TIMARA Department, marvels at the way Roussos models a multitude of career possibilities.
“Theodosia encourages students to imagine a vibrant life in music—one that celebrates all kinds of genres and practices,” he says. “Her own compositions draw on a number of influences and traditions, and they’re energized by her experiences as a performer and improvisor. She’s a gifted musical storyteller in every sense, and our students are so fortunate to have her as a role model.”
Roussos still lives in her native L.A., though her innumerable projects frequently keep her on the road. Next up, she’ll be composing the score for a documentary produced by a major streaming service—and she’ll do it all by herself for the first time. The frenetic pace suits her well, though she could do without some of the trappings of her Southern California lifestyle.
“Another reason I love Oberlin so much is it’s still,” she says. “L.A. is hectic. It’s cars and driving and so much time wasted. And I always feel like I don’t have enough time to practice because it’s so fast-moving and everything you want to do takes a lot of time. But here in Oberlin, I’m living two blocks from the conservatory when I’m here, and I can practice late at night, and it’s safe to walk home when I do.
“I feel like I can really focus here, and that is so valuable—and that’s why I’ve always come back. When I return to Oberlin, I always have the feeling of coming back to myself.”
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