COLUMBIA — Captivated by Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem of the same name, emerging composer Douglas Osmun has written an ensemble piece called “First Fig” to draw listeners into a somber world of sound.
Osmun paired haunting cello and piano with subdued mezzo-soprano vocals taken directly from the poem:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
“First Fig” won Osmun, a first-year graduate student, the 2016 Sinquefield Prize for composition at the MU School of Music. The award brings with it a welcome challenge for Osmun — writing another original composition for the University Philharmonic Orchestra at Missouri to be performed in April.
When it comes to writing something new, Osmun focuses on timbre, or the characteristic of sound.
“It’s why a guitar and a violin could play the same note, but we can still recognize the instruments' individual voices because they have their own timbres,” Osmun said. “A lot of my writing is thinking about the specific sounds of the instruments or the voices and how those can be blended together to create interesting textures and timbres.”
Here's an excerpt from the 10-minute "First Fig:"
Osmun’s ability to understand how certain sounds from instruments and voices interplay allows him to create music that evokes the precise feeling he imagines. Before he writes, he envisions a holistic plan for the shape of his composition. But, he admitted that bringing a mental image to fruition is complicated.
"One of the most difficult parts of composing is trying to convey the exact idea for a piece to performers," Osmun said. "This isn't always a bad thing, though, as there can often be pleasant surprises. Things can occur during performance that enhance the music, even if you had no intention for them to happen. It's a double-edged sword in that sense, but it's just the nature of the process."
Stefan Freund, an MU composition professor and the artistic director of the Mizzou New Music Initiative, has overseen Osmun's work on "First Fig" and other compositions. Freund described Osmun's style as modern-day post-Impressionist.
“His music is really at the forefront of what composers are doing right now,” Freund said.
Osmun said he isn’t sure which path he will take professionally, whether freelance composing, teaching or something else entirely. He said he hopes he can continue writing music. For the time being, he’s occupied with finishing the spring commission for the University Philharmonic.
But Osmun hardly seems nervous. He meets with Freund frequently to show his progress.
“He’s focused but in a good way. It’s not an obsession,” Freund said. “He’s simply focused on what he needs to do and is very good at staying on track.”
Freund said the piece is the culmination of everything Osmun has explored so far; it showcases his use of extended techniques, understanding of breath and command of timbre.
Osmun is keeping the details of his newest composition under wraps for now. It will be premiered April 10 at the Chancellor's Arts Showcase at the Missouri Theatre.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.