First-Gen music student wows Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
For the second consecutive year, a Gettysburg College student’s original score has caught the attention of the acclaimed Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO).
Richard Thomas ’16 was one of only four student composers in the nation selected for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Reading Session. His composition, Door on the Floor, injects elements of electronic dance music (EDM) into an orchestral arrangement.
Thomas is also a first-generation college student, taking full advantage of the opportunities made possible to him through Gettysburg scholarships.
“Receiving financial assistance to further my dreams was something foreign to me until I began my pursuit of an undergraduate degree—it changed everything,” said Thomas, a Mellon Scholar who was recently selected as Gettysburg College’s representative applicant for the Beinecke scholarship, which would fund his graduate education.
“The PSO reading gives me a valuable foothold in the world of composing. I was able to hear my music performed at a high level, make contacts with professionals in the field, and add a meaningful accomplishment to my resume.”
Door on the Floor aims to evoke an emotional response from its listeners, and was described by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as “innovative, fresh, and most importantly, clear.”
Thomas, a vocal performance major with a composition focus, worked closely with Sunderman Conservatory of Music Prof. Avner Dorman to prepare and fine-tune the piece. The title is a play on the phrase “four on the floor,” which refers to the steady and constant beat prevalent in EDM.
Thomas began the piece with a buildup, a distinct feature of electronic music that leads to the introduction of a steady pulse. The pulse remains throughout the piece, but in subtle forms and motifs that are more common in classical music. The piece then moves through sections that both blend and contrast the two genres, alternating from one to the other.
“I didn’t want to stretch the orchestra and make it work too hard to sound like an electronic track, I wanted to make the electronic idioms work for the orchestra,” Thomas said.
Thomas began composing Door on the Floor in the summer of 2014, following the success of fellow Conservatory standout Jeff Binner ’14, who was selected for the PSO reading last year. Binner—like Thomas—worked with Dorman to take his musical composition to the next level.
“He always has so much to say, and he is so incredibly intelligent and good at what he does that it’s an honor to be able to work with him,” said Thomas of his experience working with Dorman, who holds degrees from Tel Aviv University and the Julliard School. Thomas credits Dorman for giving him valuable guidance, but also encouraging him to develop his own original ideas.
“We work on technical aspects of the piece and I try to help students find their unique expression. I think the piece is authentic to Richard and I believe that comes across in the score,” said Dorman, a native of Israel and current director of the CityMusic Cleveland Chamber Orchestra.
“Most conservatories are not part of a liberal arts college and their students are more focused on music studies than other academic fields. Our students are strong both as musicians and academics,” added Dorman.
Thomas noted that at Gettysburg’s Conservatory, which was recently named a top-10 hidden gem music school, it’s easy to reach the professors.
"If you know what you want, it’s easy to find it. Whenever I have a question, I can always find someone with experience to ask and get an answer.”
A possible career path for Thomas? Video games.
Top titles like Call Of Duty and Batman: Arkham Night need music scored for gameplay and increasingly cinematic cutscenes. Thomas recognizes this as a new frontier for composers.
“At first, it was more of a passion searching for an outlet that seemed relevant and accessible to me,” said Thomas, whose first compositions were for a friend who developed a game called Koya Rift, which is available for download on Steam, one of the largest sites for PC game downloads.
“With so many successful independent game developers, promising advances in the field, and a lack of interest from older generations of composers, there seems to be promising opportunities for budding artists.”
Not only was the PSO reading valuable for making professional connections and strengthening his portfolio, hearing his music played by a professional ensemble proved to be validation of his hard work and dedication.
“When the last note hit, I stood up involuntarily and just thought, ‘yeah, that was awesome!’”
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Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
Article by Frank Arbogast ’16, communications and marketing intern
Contact: Mike Baker, associate director of communications, 717.337.6521
Posted: Mon, 20 Apr 2015
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