Composing Outside the Box

It’s not every day that a composer’s style combines Philip Glass and Beck and yet, that’s exactly what music professor Joshua Harris does. And now, his creativity and innovation have been recognized by the Barlow Endowment at Brigham Young University: he’s been commissioned to compose a new piece for Hub New Music next year.

The Barlow Endowment supports the creation of new music and every year, they award the Barlow Prize, which is one of the most prestigious awards for composition in the country. Professor Harris didn’t Barlow Prize (though we’re sure it’s only a matter of time!), but he did win one of a small number of general commissions the fund supports. “Grants like this give legitimacy to my work and also allow me to compose for the best musicians around the country because Barlow only awards commissions when a top-tier ensemble is involved in the project,” Josh observes.

Over the next year, Josh will compose a new piece for Hub New Music. Work like that is a big benefit to Sweet Briar students who will have the opportunity to work with the group when they come to campus next spring. “Not-for-profit performing arts organizations like Hub have a lot to offer our students,” Josh says.

Josh describes his composition style as “ambient and textural.” His main influences are minimalist composers like Phillip Glass, conceptual composers like John Cage, and art rock like Radiohead, Beck, and St. Vincent. He composes for both acoustic instruments and computer music and recently, he’s been recording improvisations on electric guitar and making immersive sound and video pieces. Last spring, he composed a piece for Akropolis Reed Quintet that included a densely textured surround sound component that he recorded on guitar, but which, he says, didn’t sound anything like a guitar.

“My music has a strong chance component, which I also think of as algorithmic music,” he tells us. “I create the algorithm, or set of rules, but within those rules, the performers have a lot of room to make their own choices. This results in a different performance each time.”

Josh’s innovation isn’t limited to his own compositions, of course. At Sweet Briar, he started Daisy’s Harp, an experimental ensemble group that includes voices and instruments. The group fosters a “Do-it-Yourself” ethos that encourages the student performers to be creative. The group has collaborated with Sweet Briar’s engineering faculty to bring technology and music together.

We can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.