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Composer inspired to connect with listeners

Sarah Summar, PhD, College of Music graduateSarah Summar will receive a doctor of philosophy degree in music composition Dec. 14. Find a schedule of winter commencement ceremonies, watch live online. About 3,000 students will receive degrees.

Why were you attracted to music?

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of time alone in the living room listening (and often dancing) to my parents’ records. Although my parents had no musical training, they always enjoyed many types of music and took the time to teach me the names of the pieces I loved and to tell me about the composers who wrote them. At age 6, Chopin and Scott Joplin, both pianists, were my favorites so I asked to take piano lessons.

Do you have favorite composers of any era or musical period?

As an orchestral violinist during my high school and college years, I became very fond of early Stravinsky and Bartók. Both of these composers have interesting approaches to rhythm that I found challenging and exciting to perform. I still find the Eastern European folk influences in their music very appealing.

Why did you come to UNT?

I chose UNT because it not only has an excellent composition department with a diversely talented faculty and state-of-the-art facilities, and also because the College of Music is one of the largest and best music schools in the country. That makes it a gold mine for composers of acoustic music like me, who are constantly in search of talented performers to bring life to their works. I hope to continue collaborating throughout my career with many of the musicians I’ve been so fortunate to meet during my years at UNT.

Are more women pursing graduate training and careers as composers?

This is a complex issue. Unlike our predecessors only a generation or two ago, women composers today don’t have to overcome widely held misconceptions that women are incapable of writing “serious” music or that their music will somehow be fundamentally “feminine.” Yet there continues to be dramatically fewer women than men pursuing careers in composition.

I myself have been fortunate to have supportive composer mentors of both genders throughout my education and especially at UNT. This leads me to believe that the disparate numbers are the result of young women eliminating themselves from the field or overlooking it as a career option altogether, not the result of discrimination perpetuated by others.

I think the best thing we can do to encourage young female musicians to consider composition is to educate them about the female role models that we do have from Hildegard of Bingen to Alma Mahler to Ruth Crawford (another one of my early 20th Century heroes), and especially to point out the illustrious careers of more recent composers like Libby Larsen, Shulamit Ran, Kaaia Saariaho and Chen Yi, just to name a few.

When you compose, what response do you hope to elicit from the listener?

A lot of the music we hear throughout the day, at the movie theater, on the radio, at the mall is designed to create a particular emotional response in the listener. I prefer to think of music as a way to connect with people rather than as a way to manipulate their emotions. That connection can be on an emotional level or it may be on an intellectual level.

I love it when something I’ve written makes someone contemplate an idea or experience that they had previously overlooked or taken for granted. That makes me feel very connected with the listener because it is that kind of revelatory experience that inspires me to write music in the first place.

How will you continue your career after graduation?

Creatively, I will always have a few composition projects underway. I’m particularly interested in continuing to do collaborative projects both with visual performance artists and chamber musicians. I also intend to continue performing with Impulse, an improvising ensemble consisting of myself and four other composers that I befriended in the doctoral program here at UNT. I also hope to soon secure a job as a college professor in the area of music composition and theory so that I might share what I’ve learned over the years with the next generation of young musicians.

Posted on: Thu 13 December 2012

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