Congratulations to Chelsea Komschlies (current PhD), winner of the 2020-2021 recipient of the Andrew Svoboda Prize for Orchestral Composition! Chelsea’s orchestral piece is slated to be premiered by the McGill Symphony Orchestra during the 2022-2023 season.
Studying composition with Jean Lesage, she is an ambassador for the kind of creativity and exploration that fuels the composition area.
We asked Chelsea a few questions to get to know more about her and the compositions she creates. Discover how she uses crossmodal correspondences in her work, where some of her references might originate, as well as some prime advice for budding composers.
Where do you call home?
Chelsea Komschlies: I currently live in Montreal with my husband and toddler, but I grew up in Wisconsin. It was an old house surrounded by farms outside of Appleton with a big, forested backyard that was allowed to run wild.
What is your favourite aspect of composition?
CK: I love using music the way a novelist would use words or an artist would use paint to create new worlds.
What are the 5 words you would use to describe your compositional style?
CK: intuitive: I follow my gut when I compose. While there may be aspects of the process that are very procedural and planned-out, in the end I think my best music happens when I am able to get out of my thinking brain and into a half-dreamlike state when composing.
synesthetic: I have both visual-audio and audio-visual synesthesia, and in general my senses seem extra-intertwined. More and more I am trying to rely on these when composing, so the process is somewhat like transcribing imagery and other senses into sound.
sculptural: I love creating aural illusions and anamorphic effects from combinations of instrumental colours. Anamorphic sculpture creates the illusion of a complete image from many unrelated pieces when viewed from a particular angle. Orchestra is my favourite medium for this reason — there are so many colours that can be combined into unique moving images.
cinematic: I often think of my compositions in terms of scenes rather than sections. I also often think of camera techniques as I’m sculpting a musical form and narrative — here is a helicopter shot, now a tight shot, now the camera pans up, etc. I also am always thinking about colours, light, textures, and objects. The combination of these things creates meaning, drama, and narrative that I hope the listener can feel, and perhaps even “see.”
referential: My music is full of allusions to many different genres and time periods, and I use these the way a production designer might place objects in a movie scene to create unspoken meaning. Think of the scene from The Matrix when Neo first meets the Oracle — the designers could have easily given her a sleek, futuristic costume and abode, but instead we have this “grandma’s shabby kitchen” vibe that imbues the storyline with certain meaning. Old things come with so much meaning already adhered to them, and when you place them in a scene, all of that comes for free and creates interesting harmonies with whatever else is present. This is also great for putting a bit of humour or kitsch into a film, or into music.
Do you have any advice for future composers?
CK: Be patient with yourself, and try to think about your own progress rather than perfection. Also, I think it's just as important for compositional development to engage your creative mind in ways other than just listening and studying scores. Read for fun, find visual artists you like, watch movies. I personally love to play puzzle adventure games in between projects or when I'm stuck on a piece. I just finished Quern.
What do you envision for your commissioned work?
CK: I hope to explore ways to use timbre and orchestration to evoke crossmodal ideas — visuals for sure, but other senses as well. My doctoral research at McGill focuses on crossmodal correspondences and their relation to musical meaning. Crossmodal correspondences are intuitive connections across sensory modes that the majority of people share; for example, both humans and chimps associate high pitches with light colours. What's exciting about this for me as a composer is that some aspects of these visual-auditory connections I experience through synesthesia are actually transmissible to the listener. Actually, one of the most common comments I receive from listeners is that my music sounds like imagery. I'm hoping that this piece will be an interesting intersection of my compositional work and crossmodal research.
Chelsea Komschlies’ music has been said to possess an “ingratiating allure” (San Diego Story). Ms. Komschlies (b. 1991, Appleton, WI) is pursuing her Ph.D. in composition with Jean Lesage at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University. Previously she studied with David Ludwig and Richard Daniel pour at the Curtis Institute of Music, where she was awarded the Alfredo Casella Award for composition, and with Dan Kellogg and Carter Pann at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she was awarded the Thurston Manning Composition Award and Cecil Effinger Fellowship in Composition. Her work springs from spontaneous subconscious mental imagery, and one of her goals is that listeners make deep, instinctual associations with her music, be they emotional, visual, or otherwise abstract.
Ms. Komschlies has been programmed by Alarm Will Sound, Choral Arts Philadelphia, and the Fifth House Ensemble, and by presenters such as Codes d'accès (Montreal), Le Vivier (Montreal), CAMARADA (San Diego), the Philadelphia Bach Festival, and Make Music Chicago. She has received fellowships from the Aspen Music Festival, where she was the first woman ever to win the Hermitage Prize, the Fontainebleau School where Nadia Boulanger once taught, Copland House’s CULTIVATE, and several other festivals in the U.S. and abroad.
About the prize
The Andrew Svoboda Prize for Orchestra Composition was created in memory of Andrew Yin Svoboda (BMus 2000, MMus 2004), who died suddenly at the age of 27 in 2004. The prize seeks to recognize excellence in orchestral composition, encourage the creation of new Canadian orchestral works and provide enriched opportunities for student composers and performers through an annual commissioning prize of $5,000 for an orchestral piece to be premiered by the McGill Symphony Orchestra.