‘Genius Among Us’ follows young composers at MU camp

Tuesday, January 6, 2009 | 5:05 p.m. CST; updated 7:59 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 6, 2009

COLUMBIA — Do you hear music in your head?

Many of us might wake up whistling a song heard on the radio or maybe a particularly catchy jingle. For those gifted with the mind of a composer, it’s a little different. The music they hear in their head is their own, and as a locally shot documentary "Genius Among Us" shows, that gift is not age-specific.

The film follows several Missouri high school students who spent a week this past summer at an MU camp dedicated to music composition. The camp is a part of the Creating Original Music Project that is sponsored by an annual donation from the Sinquefield Family Foundation.

“I always wondered, ‘Where does the music come from?’” said Jeanne Sinquefield, a musician and arts patron in the Columbia area, who was interviewed in the documentary. “Then you talk to these kids, and they sort of all say the same thing: I hear it in my head.”

The documentary was shot by Sinquefield’s son, Randy Sinquefield, an MU graduate and film producer based in Los Angeles.

“She called me and played a piece that one student had written and then told me he was only 15,” Randy Sinquefield said. “I thought, ‘You got to be kidding me.’” Sinquefield and his crew are, by trade, feature filmmakers who released the 2005 "What’s Up, Scarlet?"

The original plan was to film the end of the week concert where the newly composed pieces of music were performed by an ensemble of volunteers. However, Sinquefield said that he realized this was something other people would want to see and decided to expand the project into the week-long documentary.

There is a definite appeal in watching young, high school composers dedicate themselves to writing music at a surprisingly advanced level. The feeling is reminiscent of watching the Olympic Games only to realize that a teenage gymnast with a fraction of your life experience has won a gold medal for her country.

 “As feature filmmakers, we didn’t know what to expect when we started shooting,” Sinquefield said. “But as we shot, it became more and more evident where we wanted to go.”

Over the course of the week, he and his crew shot upward of 120 hours of raw footage.

“In some ways,” Sinquefield explained, “It is more difficult because you can’t miss a shot. It’s not like you can ask them to do another take.” He added that the real challenge was figuring out how to put it all together during the several months of post-production.

The documentary features interviews with several of the students who make up, as Sinquefield termed it, the spine of the film. Interwoven between are live performances of all 10 pieces composed at the camp.

Sinquefield added that some of his favorite moments during the editing were those “happy accidents” when the music lined up perfectly with the on-screen footage as if it had been written specifically for the documentary.

A theme that emerges in the film is the value of the rare opportunity the camp provided for the students to meet composing peers at an age when clique identity is part of the developmental process.

“We’re all music geeks, which has kind of made us bond,” said Columbia native David Smith, 18, in an on-screen interview.

“The first COMP we had, none of the kids had met another composer,” Jeanne Sinquefield said in the documentary. “In almost every other activity children do in high school and middle school, you have a lot of other people doing it. The young composers are just sort of out there in a vacuum.”

Watching the documentary as various personalities emerge, it is impossible to forget that the high school students are, in fact, kids. However, it becomes immediately clear that these composers are more driven than others their age. William McKinney, MU professor of music theory and a director at the camp, related the story in the film of how the students decided independently to wake up an hour earlier so that they could spend more time writing music.

“If you think in terms of high school students,” McKinney said, “saying we’re going to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning so they could work longer, to me that’s kind of a phenomenal situation."

One of the composers, 17-year-old Joel Nisbett of Rolla, explained what drives him to write music. “Music is very powerful. You can affect people emotionally, spiritually and physically,” Nisbett said. “It’s fun to be able to sit down and write something that can really affect people (and that they can) connect with.”

“Genius Among Us” has finished post-production and has been submitted for consideration to several film festivals including the Columbia-based True/False Film Festival. The film won "Award of Merit" at the 2008 Accolade Film Festival.

“It far exceeded every one of our expectations,” Randy Sinquefield said of his experience making the documentary about “quirky, intelligent kids.”

“I can’t express how humbling it all was,” he said. “I was not that ambitious when I was 15.”

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