So there’s always a first for everything. A friend of mine emailed me last week to tell me that in his college music 101 class, he was assigned to write an essay on a composer – and he picked me. Yes, ME. Not Beethoven, but moi.
Okay, on second thought, this is not the first time this has happened. My niece wrote a paper on me for her 4th grade class one time.
Anyway, my friend sent me a copy of his paper that he turned into his music professor and thought it would be entertaining for anyone who wanted to burn 10 minutes learning more about me from a mere “historical” stance. I don’t even have a Wikopedia page but gosh darnitt I’ve got college papers written on me. I’m impressed that he even did a break down of my songs and explained the theory behind them. (I don’t even think I could explain the theory behind them).
February 24, 2013
Semester Project – Jennifer Thomas, Composer
My favorite instrument has always been the piano. Not because I have any skill with it, but simply because the music of this particular instrument has always fascinated me. It is such a versatile beast, able to provide a powerful beat and rhythm, while simultaneously drawing me, heart and soul, through complex melodies. And it can do it all at the same time. While most instruments are tied down to just one line of music at a time, the piano can play them all, giving it a range and majesty that is rare amongst its peers. With that, let me introduce my chosen composer: Jennifer Thomas, classically trained pianist and violinist, accomplished competitive musician and composer, and a good friend of mine.
Jennifer Thomas was born and raised in the Seattle area to Ron and Carolyn Southworth. The second of three natural children and a fourth adopted son, Jennifer was raised around music. Her mother, an accomplished musician herself, introduced all of the children to music, and encouraged them to practice daily. Jenni and her older brother, Michael, had a morning routine of taking turns on the piano and their preferred string instrument: Jennifer played the violin, Mike played the cello.
Jennifer started playing the violin when she was five years old; her mother started her on Suzuki violin lessons (Suzuki being a play-by-ear method of learning the instrument). When she was seven, her mother was a volunteer in the music department at the elementary school, so Jennifer would go along and join in the before-school orchestra practice. She later learned that she had been the only second-grade student in the sixth-grade orchestra, though she had no sense of being younger than the other students.
Despite dividing her time between piano and violin, Jennifer came to a time in her youth when the piano stopped being the instrument she had to practice, and became the instrument she wanted to practice. She was no longer playing scales or simple songs from primers and learner books that she was playing from, but actual pieces composed by classical greats. Specifically, when she was twelve years old, she asked her mother to purchase the sheet music to Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2. Carolyn mother warned her that it was not an easy piece to learn and play, but Jennifer’s insistence won out in the end. Jennifer did learn it, however, despite the challenge it presented with its E# Major mode. And with this, as well as other piano-centered experiences, Jenni’s love of the piano really began to blossom, overshadowing her love of the violin.
When she started high school, the small school did not have an orchestra, which meant she found even less reason to pick up her violin, and so for four years, she played only the piano. Jennifer had an otherwise robust musical “career” in high school as the choir accompanist and the accompanist for school plays and talent shows, as well as being a blue-ribbon winner in Solo and Ensemble festivals. At home, during this time, she did not just play piano, she played hard piano. Some of her favorite composers for piano include Rachmaninoff and Beethoven – anybody who wrote music that allowed her to play loud and fast… and drive her parents crazy.
Eventually, Jennifer graduated high school and took a stab at college. She went to what was then Rick’s College, now BYU Idaho, in eastern Idaho. She joined school symphony-orchestra and put herself to work trying to catch up to her violinist peers who had not let their hard-earned skill rust. It was while she was at college that she first understood that she had been, to use her own words, “a sloppy player.” While at school she learned much about precision, and playing in an ensemble gave her a great respect for how difficult and rewarding precision playing can be. She studied with Dr. Stephen Allen, dean of piano studies and learned much from him about how to connect with the piano and really make it sing.
After graduating, Jennifer pursued music through various avenues, from teaching students, to joining various community symphony-orchestras, and volunteer performances. She joined the Salt Lake City Temple Square Concert Series, where she performed regularly in the Conference Center at Temple Square in Salt Lake City as well as at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building for three years, before moving back to Washington.
There is so much and more to share in this paper, but two pages in I realize I have not even gotten to Jennifer’s compositions. She had never thought of herself as a composer. People asked her regularly, after hearing her perform, if she had ever written anything of her own. She usually just laughed and said “no.” On a whim, she had attempted to compose something once, but it was not impressive, little more than a “sad version of chopsticks.”
One Christmas season, however, in 2003, she felt inspired to give it another go. And that night she composed her first-ever piece of music: “Old Movie Romance,” and two days later she composed “Prelude in F.” Both of these songs are featured on her debut album, Key of Sea, released in 2007.
Jennifer gave birth to her first child in 2008, and after dealing with a baby who wouldn’t sleep for months on end, she began making up little lullabies to help him relax and sleep. It dawned on her one night that she could do more than just make the little, spur-of-the-moment lullabies, and that is how she came up with the idea for this Album. The Lullaby Album, was a collaborative work with her mother.
Now, with two children, she has recently released her third album, Illumination, which is, in my opinion, sounds exactly like her.
She and I became friends over a decade ago, and I could always tell when she was playing something she had to play versus when she was playing something she wanted to play. Illumination is like a page out of the book of things Jennifer loves to play. Though her music is almost always composed for a broad range of instruments, rarely solo piano, piano always plays a strong role in her music, which keeps me listening, sometimes for hours on end. Her skill as a composer has been reflected, not only in her successful releases of three different albums over the past several years, but in that she has been nominated for countless awards, winning or placing highly among many of them. Just last year she was a strong contender for the Grammy Awards, though ultimately she was passed by… this time.
History of Selected Work
I have selected works from the album Illumination, by Jennifer Thomas. Specifically, I have selected the songs Etude for the Dreamer, Illumination (the title track from the album), and Across the Starlit Sky. These songs I’ve specifically chosen because I think they represent not only some of Jennifer’s finest work, but because they (with the exception of Starlit Sky) are characteristic of the kind of fast-paced music that she loves to play, though to be more representative of her skill, I have included Starlit Sky which is much slower-paced and illustrative of her more serious side. I had a hard time selecting music for this paper, as I thought I wanted to present a variety of her works for the greatest introduction to her, and making such selective choices was, I felt, beyond my expertise.
I asked Jennifer directly what she thought I should select for this paper, what would be representative of her. That put her on the spot, I think, because obviously she loves all of her music. She did finally encourage me to go with the Illumination album, mentioning that the entire album was more of a suite than a collection of individual songs. The whole thing goes together as a single work. This made it that much harder to finally land on the songs I eventually did. Being forced to narrow my choices down to 10-12 minutes, I found myself cutting one piece after another until I was left with my three favorites from the album.
Etude for the Dreamer – Released on Illumination, July 2012; Tickled Ivory Music.
Jennifer knew from the outset that this would be the opening track on her new album, she specifically opened it in minor mode, with the expectation of giving listeners a sense of anxiousness or excitement for what was to come.
The inspiration for the song came from her looking out over an evergreen forest and the idea of it being covered, saturated with fog, this thought had a definite dream-like quality that she wanted to harness and convey through music. She drew on her training, specifically taking inspiration from Frederic Chopin, as she describes him as the king of creative, skill-strengthening pieces, and this piece is very technically difficult. She confesses it is possibly the most difficult-to-play composition she’s ever written, and said that she has yet to perform it live without making errors, while at the same time, it’s also a very satisfying piece for her to play or even just to listen to, as so much work went into composing it.
Illumination – Released on Illumination, July 2012; Tickled Ivory Music.
The title track of the album – one of my favorite songs of all time, in fact – has the unlikely distinction of having been created initially as a one-minute “audition” submission for a car-commercial. Because the car manufacturer’s advertisement agency did not select it for their commercial, she was able to retain her ownership of the piece and has expanded it, building it into a living, lively piece of art.
Originally written for violins, French Horns, Percussion, and celli, she later met with the conductor of the Evergreen Philharmonic Orchestra and with the help of couple of transcriptionists, was able to score Illumination for a full symphony. The end result is a fast-paced thrill-ride around twists and bends of a road designed with luxury in mind.
Across the Starlit Sky – Released on Illumination, July 2012; Tickled Ivory Music.
This is the only solo-piano piece released on the Illumination album. It’s mellower, much more toned down from Jennifer’s usual fiery piano music, but it’s so full of introspection and peace, that I thought it would fit very well as part of this paper. The piece gets its name from the deep night sky that she could view out the large window as she sat at the piano.
Etude for the Dreamer
0:00 – The music starts with the piano setting a pace that grabs attention. The music cycles through several notes, then ascends briefly, making an arch as it comes back down.
0:07 – As the arch descends below where it started, we get the first beat of percussion which is a queue for the strings to start. The violins maintain a distant humming accompaniment, while the celli make occasional statements.
0:21 – Percussion becomes more involved, over the next 10-15 seconds what sounds like cymbals, or perhaps maracas, begin a slow crescendo reaching their loudest by about 0:35.
0:49 – The percussion cuts out altogether, as do the string, leaving the piano alone for about 7 seconds when the celli return.
0:57 – the celli return along with the rest of the string and percussion instruments.
1:02 – the music returns in earnest at this point, drawing the listener forward.
1:36 – there is a diminuendo, which feels like the piece is drawing to a close, but it’s a mislead.
2:03 – the mode changes from minor to major and the almost ominous feel of the piece becomes brighter, giving a sense of a new day dawning.
2:50 – a drum-roll signals a return to minor mode and the piece darkens for a while.
3:20 – the pace picks up again and we’re brought back into major mode as the piece approaches its ending.
3:50 – All the other instruments disappear one last time; allowing the piano to close the piece with two final, but strong notes.
0:00 – Much like Etude, Illumination starts with a few very quick notes on the piano.
0:02-0:10 – The violin(s) enter, almost teasingly, hinting at their presence, but then they’re gone briefly, to return again, fully joining in with the piano by 0:10
0:16 – Here, a low chord is struck and allowed to fade before the melody comes back with a vengeance.
0:37 – The strong piano melody takes a break, and the violins take over, imitating the melody introduced at the beginning of the song by the piano.
0:47 – A crescendoing slide of the string instruments brings the strength of the melody back again, part of a pattern throughout the first half of the piece. The beat is now set by the piano, firmly.
1:05 – 1:07 – A pause in the music followed by the drums taking a turn, rumbling in the introduction to a new movement.
1:07 – The piano takes over the melody while maintaining the beat for about 10 seconds, without other instrument accompaniment.
1:18 – The violins return, mimicking the initial melody.
1:34-2:17 – The piano introduces a new melody, rich and full, in perfect harmony with the original melody still playing in the background by the strings.
2:17 – The piano and violins return to the original melody/accompaniment.
2:52 – At this point, there is a major key change, and the strings come in with a strong support to the piano’s melody. There is also a hint of brass in this movement.
3:13 – Again the arrangement returns to the original melody.
3:21 – The piano introduces a change back to minor, and it carries us through towards the end.
3:39 – The tempo slows considerably, letting us know we’re near the end.
3:50 – The piano brings us to a conclusion with a quick descent into the final closing statement.
Across the Starlit Sky
0:00 – This song opens with a lento ascending form and a gentle progression.
0:16 – The melody changes very slightly for a moment, becoming more involved, before returning to the basic original melody.
0:36 – The evolution of the melody continues here, introducing a lovely upper-register melody that drives the movement.
1:15-1:24 – the upper-register piano takes a momentary break
1:41 – a more mature lower register tone joins the upper pitches bringing a soulfulness to the piece.
2:30 – the high notes begin telling the story again, drawing the listener along.
3:12 – We’re approaching the end, and the higher notes slow their pace, introducing us to the end.
3:28 – The notes start a progressive descent towards the end.
3:50 – The entire piece is wrapped up with the final few notes and a closing chord.