Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

Student composer featured at Newman Center gig

Chip Michael

DU composition student Chip Michael presents a recital of his works Oct. 12 at the Newman Center. Photo: Clare C Martin - streetshadows UK

Chip Michael doesn’t bother listening to the radio. Those songs only compete with the music that constantly plays inside his head.

“There’s always a melody going on, there’s always something,” says the graduate student in composition at the Lamont School of Music. [My wife and I] will go for these long drives, and she’ll fall asleep and I’ll end up humming to myself and getting out the phone and recording it. I have an mp3 player in my head and I can’t turn it off.”

A trombone player since age 6, Michael started his professional life working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. When the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, he returned to his first love, moving with his wife to Edinburgh, Scotland, to study music at Napier University. He came to DU in fall 2009 to study with Lamont instructor William Hill, who also is the principal timpanist with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and Assistant Professor Chris Malloy. Michael also runs a classical music blog called Interchanging Idioms that is ranked among the top-25 classical websites in the country.

On Oct. 2, Michael listened as the Boulder Symphony Orchestra gave the American premiere of his piece “You Can’t Catch Rabbits with Drums.” He was nervous before the concert, he says — not only because of the complexity of the piece, but because of the company in which it was being played. His work was featured along with works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

“I looked at the program and I realized I was being played in a concert with probably three of the greatest composers ever,” says Michael, who is this season’s composer-in-residence with the Boulder orchestra. “Even though an audience may not consciously go, ‘Hmm, how does Chip Michael’s piece compare to Mozart or Haydn?’ there is still that element there of, ‘Wow — that was different.’”

Fortunately, he says, the audience liked the piece primarily because it was different — but not too different. He says his musical goal is to fuse traditional-sounding melodies with a modern sense of rhythmic intensity. There was a time when “new music” was all about experimentation and atonality, but Michael advocates for a return to center.

“I think late 20th, early 21st century classical music is kind of at a crossroads — do we continue to do music that doesn’t sound anything like our predecessors, or do we try to find something new?” he says. “I’m in that latter category of saying, ‘Great music is great music for a reason, and just completely throwing it out to do something new seems foolish. Let’s see where we can go with that.’”

On Nov. 13, the Boulder Symphony will premiere “Exchanging Glances,” a piece it commissioned Michael to write. But those looking to get a taste of the composer’s music a little closer to home are in luck: On Oct. 12, Lamont musicians will perform a recital of Michael works including a brass quintet, a string quartet, a piano and baritone piece and a piano solo.

“DU was a great choice,” says Michael, who also works for the marketing department of the Colorado Symphony. “The Lamont Symphony Orchestra is phenomenal, and the opportunities for a composer here — to work with really good string players and get a chance to compose a piece for the composers concert in April — it’s a dream come true.”

A recital of Chip Michael’s compositions begins at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 12 in Hamilton Hall in the Newman Center for the Performing Arts. Admission is free; no tickets are required.

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