Audience Engagement, Community Outreach, Contemporary Music, Education, Ensembles, Future of Music, Inspirational Stories, Opportunity

Collaborative Composition: How Writing Together Helped The Kraken Quartet Evolve

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By Chris Demetriou

When we formed The Kraken Quartet, we had no master plan for where the group would go. Like so many other college chamber groups, we had no five-year goals, no catalogue of repertoire, and certainly no major notoriety. We were just a couple of friends who knew we loved playing music together. Despite this lack of long-term direction, we had one crucial characteristic that tied our group together: the willingness to try anything. So, for the first few years of our existence, The Kraken Quartet gave everything a shot. We were still trying to find out what “our thing” was, but we decided early on that no matter what we did, we would give it our all. We started volunteering to play on premiers of any and every student composer that would have us, and eventually pieced together our first ever call for scores (which boasted a whopping total of three applicants). We began tackling the lists of repertoire that percussion groups were “supposed” to play, striving to build some kind of foundation for our group. We started commissioning every composer we had contact with, organizing community shows, exploring alternate performance models (including one of our first experiments, a concert that was designed to put the audience to sleep), and grasping at every opportunity possible. Even though we loved every second of it, the four of us still hadn’t settled into exactly what it was that made our group unique.

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The Kraken Quartet is an Austin-based percussion group. The ensemble includes (from left to right) Sean Harvey, Chris Demetriou, Taylor Eddinger, and Andrew Dobos. Photo credit: Evan Monroe Chapman.

Our direction took a major turn one night when Taylor, one of our members, asked for a favor. He was enrolled in a composition class, and wanted help playing through an assignment he was working on. We got together in our usual room, set up the gear, and started going about it like any other rehearsal. But, almost immediately, a different feeling emerged. As we worked through the music, offering advice and making edits, a level of comfort formed that we could have never expected. Here we were, great friends who were united by a love of playing music, stripping that motivation down to its core. We were working together to create our own sound, our own unique voice. The feeling was liberating. Soon, other members of the group began writing similar frameworks for us to shape as an ensemble. It didn’t take long before we were skipping that first step altogether, writing pieces from the ground up as a group. After so much time spent trying to find the repertoire that best suited us, we simply created our own.

Of course, the idea of an ensemble writing for itself is nothing new. In many musical realms, from pop to rock, this is in fact expected. But after years in music school, a certain barrier had been put up for us. Whether it was intentional or not, we were made to feel that (in our musical culture, at least) there was a line separating composer and performer. But as soon as we pulled away that divide, our group propelled forward faster than we could have ever imagined. This structure become our focus, and for a while we performed exclusively our own music. We played shows wherever we could: bars, concert halls, basements, parks, living rooms, art galleries, and more. The liberation that came with creating our own music flowed into everything we did. Motivated, we packed our cars and started driving to any venue in any city that would have us. Summers became time for touring, recording, and writing. Even after we graduated and spread out across the country, we always gave the group everything we had.

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The Kraken Quartet performs live in Ithaca, NY.

After far too many long commutes to rehearsals, today we finally find ourselves located in the same city once more. Based in Austin, TX, we have made The Kraken Quartet a major priority in our lives. With the skills we developed through writing music together, we have come full circle, returning to the works of other composers. However, after all we’ve been through, we can’t help but come at it in a different way. The process of collaborative writing gave us an acute ear for the sensibilities of our ensemble-mates. As we find ourselves preparing music by other composers, whether it be Steve Reich or a friend who wants to collaborate, our experiences have given us a feeling of comfort and community. Our understanding of one another helps us bring music to life, and we really do believe this connection shines through.

We have by no means abandoned composing for ourselves. This fall, we are headed to the studio to record our next album, featuring entirely original music. Collaborative composition has been a valuable asset to our group’s growth, and starting this year, we are looking to share this process. Over the next several years, we will be developing a series of masterclasses centered around this concept of collaborative composition. We will be heading to universities, conservatories, and public schools with the goal of helping students learn to be comfortable writing music with their peers. When that barrier was removed from our group, we soared forward faster than we could have imagined. We want to do the same for others. Our goal is to help tear down this divide, and ultimately make composition an important part of any student’s music education.

Although we are thrilled to share the lessons we have learned by writing music together, getting others to follow us is not exactly the point. In the end, we want other young ensembles to feel the same sense of liberation that we found. The music world today is rapidly changing, and with that the definition of what makes a chamber group is shifting. We have started to figure out what we love to do, but it took a willingness to shake off expectations. More than anything, we want other young groups to know that it is okay to find your own way, and that anything is fair game. This mentality is what will continue to push our art forward, and help keep music alive and growing.

Audience Engagement, Education, Ensembles, Future of Music, Opportunity, Pedagogy

Traditional American Music in a Traditional Conservatory Setting

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“I really want to play like that, but I’m just scared and I don’t know where to start…” These are the words an Eastman student said to me about playing bluegrass recently. Over my past three years at the Eastman School of Music, I have heard a variation of that phrase from classical performance majors countless times. “How do you do that?” “I wish I started playing like that earlier.” “I wish I didn’t have to depend on a score all of the time.”  

I was fortunate to grow up in a diverse and rich musical environment. I started classical piano lessons when I was four and classical violin lessons when I was eight. When I was younger, my mom had a bluegrass band and I always sat downstairs in the living room, listening to every rehearsal. By the time I was thirteen and the fiddler from the band left to go to college at Boston Conservatory, my mom was looking for a new fiddler. I told her I could play the tunes since I had been listening to all of the rehearsals. She was surprised to find that this was in fact true and I took over as the fiddler and subsequently played in various other bluegrass bands throughout high school. My mom always took me to bluegrass jams, house concerts, “picking parties” as we like to call them, and many live concerts ranging from Irish to jazz to funk to folk. The breadth of music I was exposed to when I was younger came to define the person I am today.  

My identity as a fiddler is just as important as my identity as a classical musician. After hearing many of my peers at Eastman tell me they wished they could improvise and play the styles I do, I decided to start a student organization, Eastman Americana, for the purpose of educating students how to play traditional American music.  

Eastman Americana performs in Kodak Hall at Eastman for the Celebrate Diversity Concert.

My main goal is to create a safe-haven for Eastman musicians to learn tunes and improvise in a community where they will not be judged. My belief is that traditional American music is the perfect introduction and environment for any instrumentalist of any skill level or age beginning to learn how to improvise. I think the main roadblock holding classical musicians back from improvising is the lack of knowledge and competency. No one wants to feel incompetent on an instrument they’ve worked years to master.

When I was younger and went to various jams back home in Connecticut, musicians of all levels and ages would play in the same environment. If you were less experienced, you might stand at the edge of the jam circle rather than in the center. But no one was ever ostracized for their skill level or musical ideas. The way I learned was listening to older musicians take solos who had more experience than me and finally I felt safe and comfortable enough to start taking solos of my own.    

I want to re-create the environment where I learned to play fiddle for students at Eastman because the importance not only lies in the type of music being created, but the welcoming environment in which learning takes place. The reason why traditional American music lends itself so well especially to the classical conservatory setting is because there are a multitude of levels where a player can be involved.

Take a fiddle tune, for example. The way I usually go about introducing a fiddle tune to a group of experienced classical musicians is to teach the melody phrase by phrase and then review larger chunks of the sections that repeat. Then, I teach the chords so rhythm and bass instruments can join in.  

With the musicians that feel less comfortable improvising, taking a solo, or playing the melody, I always give a few additional options to play backup or accompany in a tasteful way. Bass and cello players can play a simple bass line and guitarists can play chords. Any other string players or instrumentalists can play a rhythmic ostinato over the chord changes or play what fiddlers call “chucking” which are short double stops on the 2nd and 4th beats. If all of those options are still too much, a player can simply play long tones that move with the chord changes over the melody.  

Giving a wide variety of options to players learning a new style relieves pressure or worries of judgment. In regards to improvisation with traditional American music styles, I stress to beginning players that it is perfectly fine to use the melody of the tune as a backbone to a solo. Many people think improvising (especially in other genres like jazz) has to be something completely new and different and many established musicians who do not have a lot of improvisation experience feel the pressure to do that. With traditional American music, using the melody as a basis and jumping-off point for a solo is not frowned upon, and is actually accepted.  

I started Eastman Americana last spring, and since then, we have had a lot of success with hosting jams and bringing in local and national musicians in for educational workshops for Eastman students and faculty. This year, we were able to present educational workshops with Silver City Bound (formerly known as The Amigos) from New York City, 10 String Symphony (two 5-string fiddlers from Nashville), Christian Howes and Béla Fleck. I hope we will continue that success next year by presenting more workshops, particularly with musicians who play traditional American music and also have a background in classical training.   

The Amigos from NYC run a workshop with Eastman Americana members.

Many people ask me how I developed my skills as a fiddler while simultaneously developing my classical technique. I think the best way is to listen to other people play live. Hearing the stylistic and rhythmic subtleties of traditional American music compared to classical style is so much more important than just learning the notes. Even going to a jam and just listening to others can be really beneficial to develop your ear.  

I feel very passionate about incorporating traditional American music styles in the public school setting as well as in conservatory education. Even if a conservatory-trained musician has every intention of playing classical music exclusively, I believe that every musician should be able to play improvised music and learn tunes by ear with their peers. Improvising unlocks a level of creativity that is not accessed when reading a traditional score.  

The bluegrass scene I grew up with brought musicians of all ways of life together. Having the skill set to be able to improvise is not only valuable, even as a classical musician, but also brings all types of musicians together that maybe would not have interacted under any other circumstances. That is the part of playing traditional American music that I cherish and that I hope every musician has the chance to experience.   

Tahlia Cott is a performer and teacher currently pursuing her music education degree at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. She is the founder and president of Eastman Americana, a student organization devoted to educating students about traditional American music. She can be contacted at tcott@u.rochester.edu.

Audience Engagement, Community Outreach, Ensembles, Interdisciplinary, Orchestras

Students Build Film Music Empire

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By Ben Escobar

I remember walking down a hallway in the practice room Annex one day in late April of 2015, continuing my eternal quest to find a vacant piano. Since arriving at music school in the fall of my freshman year, I quickly learned that noise hides around every corner, and the walls are covered in paper of all sizes. Some pieces have vibrant colors and smiling faces, primped portraits of bright stars hoping to leave a mark. Others simply feature plain paper with the words “The Eastman School of Music Presents…” typed out over a list of jaded names. That spring day, one particular poster caught my eye, as a picture of Jeff Beal, the Emmy award-winning film and television composer, drew me into an advertisement for the Empire Film Music Ensemble’s biggest concert of the year. It promised an evening of stunning film music, most notably the premiere of Beal’s House of Cards Symphony, adapted from themes used in the smash hit Netflix original. Unfortunately, I had to miss the actual concert for a gig, but this prompted me to attend EFME’s dress rehearsal later that same day, and as I sat in the 2,400-seat hall, the sounds of the student orchestra boomed throughout Kodak in perfect sync with the sinister images of Frank and Claire Underwood on screen. Being able to see Jeff and the conducting legend Donald Hunsberger rehearse the orchestra and collaborate with the ensemble’s executive team was an enlightening experience, as well as a glimpse into the world of musical administration.

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photo by Kurt Brownwell

After witnessing EFME’s Executive Director Michael Staffeldt and his two-man team perform the Herculean task of organizing, administering, and conducting a breadth of musicians and technicians, I was astounded by both the caliber of musicianship, and the remarkably high production value of the event. Immediately following that dress rehearsal I pulled Michael aside, congratulated him, and expressed my desire to participate in EFME’s future. The final concert would go on to receive rave reviews and mark a triumphant moment in the ensemble’s three-year history.


Founded in 2013 by Michael and his friend Dylan Price, the Empire Film Music Ensemble emerged from the duo’s shared passion for performing the film music they know and love in a professional concert setting. By using the resources available to them as students at the Eastman School of Music, the pair recruited a team comprised of their peers and began staging public concerts throughout the school’s many recital halls. After two successful Kickstarter campaigns, the project developed and EFME began collaborating with budding artists and filmmakers from the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as the Berklee College of Music in Boston. These student collaborations included the recording and staging of original film content in conjunction with classic film music repertoire. In addition to their work with renowned Eastman alumnus Jeff Beal, the Empire Film Music Ensemble has also premiered an original arrangement for choir and orchestra of Eric Whitacre’s Lux Nova in their most recent concert titled “From Darkness Into Light.” The producers of the award-winning, crowd-funded show “Star Trek Continues” also chose EFME to record the music for episode 4, composed by Juilliard faculty member Andy Farber. Today, Michael remains the only original founding member on the executive team, but thanks to the efforts of students throughout EFME’s history, the ensemble has grown to include over 70 musicians, received fiscal sponsorship from the University of Rochester Optical Society of America, and expanded its executive board to a team of six people.

Since joining the EFME executive team in January 2016 as Personnel Manager and Social Media Director, I’ve become deeply enthralled in the madness of music administration. Between embarking on a major online re-branding, enlisting musicians for our upcoming “Star Trek Continues” recording, and booking future opportunities for the ensemble, my days have become a blur of emails and board meetings. Not to mention my academic responsibilities as a full-time dual degree college student. Yet, despite the countless late nights, the few months I’ve spent working with this team have been some of the most rewarding in my two years living in Rochester because I have been directly involved with major advancements in the development of EFME’s legacy.

In order to expand on EFME’s professional recording experience, the ensemble is moving towards functioning as a film and contemporary media production company, in addition to its current status as a performance ensemble. This is an effort to both expand the ensemble’s marketability and assist up and coming artists in creating an industry quality product at a fraction of the cost. As a student led NGO, the entirety of EFME’s music personnel is made up of volunteers, but the executive team has been working tirelessly to book production and recording jobs for the ensemble that will provide enough capital to fund future projects and pay our musicians. Aside from creating added incentive for students to participate in our projects, EFME strives to provide them with professional opportunities in the highly competitive industries of film music and contemporary media in a manner that does not inconvenience their pursuit of a college degree.

Thankfully, both local and national demand for low budget filmmakers and composers is keeping us busy with requests. It’s an exciting time to be in this group because it enables us to work with so many talented, passionate people. This very month the “Star Trek Continues” crew will be traveling from LA and NYC to record with us in Rochester for a second time.  We are also composing and recording original scores for two student filmmakers at RIT, and working with a local writer in bringing a fictional narrative to life through animated film. Additionally, our team is working with RIT’s Film and Animation Department on producing an interactive show on the topic of augmented reality at the 2016 Rochester Fringe Festival.

If you’d like to stay updated on the Empire Film Music Ensemble’s other current projects, or if you would like to collaborate with us please visit our website at http://www.empirefilmmusicensemble.com and follow us on social media.



Ben Escobar is a multi-instrumentalist and producer currently attending the Eastman School of Music. He has been a member of the Empire Film Music Ensemble since January 2016, serving as Personnel Manager, Social Media Director, and a member of the Executive Committee.