UCSD Composer Wins Prestigious Commission
from the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University
Dirk Sutro | February 16, 2010
UCSD music student Bryan Christian received a commission from the Fromm Foundation.
It’s not often that mining the 13th century yields a contemporary gem. But UC San Diego composer Bryan Christian discovered a rich vein of inspiration in the cathedrals and churches of the Old Town of Tallinn, Estonia--one of the best preserved medieval villages in Europe.
In December, Christian learned that he had won a Fromm Commission from the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University. Considered one of the most prestigious awards in composition, it will provide $10,000 to fund his next composition as well as $3,000 to support the premier performance.
As a Fromm Commission recipient, Christian finds himself in an elite group. Over the years, established, well-known composers such as Luciano Berio, Milton Babbitt, and Elliot Carter have been commissioned by the foundation. At 25, Christian is one of the youngest recipients of the Fromm Commission since its inception.
Later this year, Christian will return to Tallinn to continue a compositional odyssey that began in 2008, when, supported by a J. William Fulbright Grant, he lived in Tallinn for nearly a year. During that time, he composed several works that grew from his fascination with Tallinn’s churches and the process by which medieval monks wrote sermons and prayers.
The Old Town of Tallinn, in Estonia, is one of the best preserved medieval villages in Europe.
Christian’s use of the physical environment as a source of inspiration for his creative process exemplifies the wide-ranging, innovative work of composers earning graduate degrees within UCSD’s Department of Music.
“We recruit composers who show potential for new and original thinking,” said Department of Music Chair Miller Puckette. “Bryan’s use of a medieval town as a platform for a leap into multiple musical dimensions shows what can happen when we provide a rigorous academic atmosphere that leaves plenty of latitude for students to pursue their personal passions.”
During his Fulbright visit to Tallinn in 2008-2009, Christian’s goal was to model a new composition after the historical architecture of one of the many medieval churches in Tallinn’s Old Town. “I visited six or seven, and I chose Toomkirik. First built in the early 13th century, it is the oldest church in Estonia. In the 1680s, everything except the exterior stone walls burned down in a widespread fire. These walls were some of the only structures left standing in Tallinn, and although the interior has since undergone a number of renovations, the medieval walls still stand today.”
As Christian explored cathedrals and churches, his thinking was influenced by Mary Carruthers’ book "The Craft of Thought" (2000), which considers the role of memory and monastic meditation in the process of forming words and images between 400 AD and 1200 AD.
“The wandering through imagined architectural spaces, as a form of contemplative meditation, was an important process for Cistercian monks in their writing of sermons and prayers,” Christian explained. “These imagined locations--usually cathedral interiors--took on symbolic meaning. Objects in the imagined rooms would remind them of what they wanted to write or say, and this ‘mental wandering’ was a way to experience a connection with the Divine.
“Eventually I realized that what really interested me was not the actual building, but how the cathedral interiors inspired the imaginary spaces that medieval monks used in meditation,” he said. “This resonated with my conception of musical language. In my compositions, I describe musical spaces through complex mathematics. As a composer, I become familiar with these imaginary musical spaces, and they act in a similar way to the locations imagined by monks in meditation. But, rather than project my ideas through a sermon or religious text, I project my ideas through music.”
The church of Toomkirk was one of the sources of Christian's inspiration. It is the oldest church in Estonia.
Christian’s first composition inspired by Toomkirik was a 21-minute orchestral work titled “Vespers.” The piece was performed in March 2009 by the orchestra of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. “But the idea of an imagined architecture of the mind,” Christian explained, “really came to fruition last year when I wrote ‘Aquae Fontes’ for violin and cello, which premiered when I was composer-in-residence at the 19th Juventus Festival in France.”
Born in Gainesville, Florida, Christian grew up in South Carolina and Georgia. He went on to earn his undergraduate degree in music composition from Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.
In 2009, Christian completed his masters degree in music composition at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, where he worked with composers Toivo Tulev and Helena Tulve. Christian met composer Chinary Ung, who is now his graduate adviser at UC San Diego, during his final year at Indiana.
“Chinary was a visiting professor and he lured me to UCSD and became my graduate adviser,” Christian said. Ung grew up in Southeast Asia and has spent much of his artistic life in the United States.“I deeply admire Chinary’s use of history and tradition as a spiritual medium in his compositions.”
In addition to the Fromm Commission, Christian currently has commissions from the Ohio Northern University Symphony Orchestra, the 20th Juventus Festival in France, and an ensemble of accordion, mezzo-soprano, and actor in Estonia. Christian’s other awards include the J. William Fulbright Grant, the Indiana University Dean’s Prize in Music Composition, and, when he was selected from more than 400 entries nationwide in 2007, a BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) Young Composers Award.
Now, with the Fromm Commission, Christian heads back to Estonia in June. Following the performance of his recent work for accordion, mezzo-soprano, and actor on June 2nd in Tallinn, he will begin the collaborative process with Ensemble U: on the new piece, which he hopes will premiere in the fall of 2011.
“For my new work, I plan to continue to develop the idea of imagined space and meditation, this time focusing on the Estonian landscape,” he said. “Once again, I’ll use this creative process that is clearly positioned simultaneously in the technical and the intuitive. I believe that somehow classical music should reach for something higher and deeper than just being an intellectual exercise.”