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Graduate Student Appreciation Week Profile: William Kenlon

April 5, 2017

William Kenlon, current Graduate School Flagship Fellow,  is a self-described "Navy brat" who, as a child, lived all over the United States.  He attended Germanna Community College before transferring to James Madison University to finish his music degree, with concentrations in composition and voice performance.  He then went on to Tufts University for his Master's degree.  He is currently working on his D.M.A. in composition.  

In 2015, William won the Walsum Award for his choral work "Five Fantasies on Bach Chorales," which was then premiered by the UMD Chamber Singers.  Last year, he became the first resident composer at the University of Maryland to have music included on a curricular chamber music concert, when Angela Kazmierczak and three colleagues gave the DC-area premiere of "Lyric Suite For English Horn."  Outside the University, highlights of this past year include performances of William's works for voice and piano in Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Italy.

We caught up with William during Graduate Student Appreciation Week.

Where do your best ideas come from?

Lately, my best ideas have come from non-musical sources: poetry, literature, scientific papers, presentations by scholars in disciplines foreign to my own.  My raw musical materials are almost always rooted in something other than just the way they sound on the surface or the way lines interact in abstraction.  Synesthesia is an important part of how I approach music, so often my best ideas come from visual cues and my attempts to emulate them - say, how might I translate a Rothko canvas into an orchestral arrangement?

What is your idea of a perfect morning at UMD?

I'm an avid cyclist, so my ideal morning would always start with biking to campus and getting myself ready to teach any of the various classes for which I was TA or instructor.  I'm not a big fan of routine in general, but the bike ride followed by a couple of hours of working with students on improving our musicianship together was easy to get used to.

If you would sum up the most important characteristics of a musician in three words, what would they be?

Listening, listening, and listening.  To expand on that: listening actively to as much music as possible, listening to your colleagues while you make music together, and listening to and enacting feedback from experts in your field.

Who, or what, inspired you to enter your field?

Composition is something I've been interested in since my first time sitting at a keyboard.  I learned to read standard music notation pretty late in life, so playing songs by ear and making things up were my bread and butter for a long time.  When I was in my teens, I looked up to a couple of older Hollywood composers such as Henry Mancini.  In college, when I learned that living composers - not just the dead ones so well represented in commonly available classical music recordings - could write music for the concert stage, that was the first time I realized that what is now my field even existed!  Once that set in, John McDonald, my composition teacher at Tufts University, was my primary inspiration for pursuing this dual life as an artist and a citizen of the academy.

Has there ever been a time in your life and/or work when you doubted what you were doing to the point that you seriously considered abandoning said work?  

Writing music tends to happen whether I want it to or not, so the moments (or periods) of doubt I've experienced have been related purely to the professional pursuit of music rather than being involved with it avocationally.  But, to answer the question, yes: it took me more than one round of applications to get into a good, funded doctoral program, so that process had me doubting that I was doing the right thing.  I'm fortunate to have avoided such periods of doubt since starting my program.

Who in your field, would you most want to meet and why?

The world of contemporary concert music is quite small and close-knit, so I'm fortunate that several of my most revered idols are also trusted colleagues and mentors.  Foremost among those are composers Stephen Jaffe and Libby Larsen, who write music of incredible beauty and originality.  Their approaches are quite different, but what comes through in the work of both is a sense of harmonic, melodic, and gestural clarity - a difficult-to-define quality that I am continually seeking to improve in my own output.

What would you be if you weren't a musician?

Prior to majoring in music as an undergraduate, I had some experience as a major in fine arts, education, and English, any of which I would've been happy continuing had I not been unable to keep myself from spending all my time writing and playing music.  One of the great things about being a musician in academia, though, is that one often serves non-musical functions.  I've run organizations, planned conferences, made budgets, collaborated with artists in other disciplines (including art and literature), honed my pedagogical skills, and more.  This multiplicity of jobs, and the mental stretching that goes along with each of them has done a lot to prevent creative burnout.

What is the hardest problem you solved as a grad student at UMD?

It is always challenging to navigate a new environment. For me, finding like-minded scholars was critical - both to sustain and enhance my academic development. One advice I might give to any potential graduate student is this:  if you don't find a support system immediately, then create it.  In this respect I was fortunate - my program supported the formation of a composition colloquium.

If you were an instrument, what would you be and why?

A cello.  (This is not an uncommon answer, but it's common for a reason!)  The cello's palette is unparalleled in terms of diversity - range, tone color, expressiveness, articulation, agility.  I think we could all learn how to be better humans, both individually and collectively, by studying and emulating cellos.

Further information about William Kenlon and his work can be found here.