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High school senior’s original composition to be performed by BSU band

High School senior Elias Connell composed a piece that will be performed by BSU’s Voltage electronic band. Submitted photo

BEMIDJI — Elias Connell may only be a senior in high school, but he’s already established himself as a music composer.

On Dec. 11, Connell’s “Take a Break” will be performed by Voltage, the electronic music ensemble at Bemidji State University. The performance is set for 7:30 p.m. in Thompson Recital Hall of the Bangsberg Fine and Performing Arts Complex. The concert is free and open to the public.

In spring, Connell applied for and received an Artist Mentor grant from the Region 2 Arts Council to study with a professional familiar with computer software-assisted composing.

Region 2 then contacted Greg Gaston, a Level 2 TI:ME (Technology Institute for Music Educators) instructor, to see if he would be interested in mentoring a high school student. At the same time, Gaston was asked to assume the Voltage music ensemble for the fall semester at BSU, where he has been an adjunct music teacher since 1997. Also a professional musician, Gaston was instrumental in starting the music technology program at BSU in 2002, which has proven to be a front-runner in music technology nationwide.

“I don’t normally teach younger students,” Gaston said. “I tend to give that work away because my time is spent more in composing and teaching my students at the university level. But this was so unique because I totally understood where he (Elias) was coming from and it was intriguing to be approached and asked to be a part of mentoring a young person in creating original art forms.”

Connell and Gaston started meeting in August and the pair soon focused on a song that could eventually be performed by Voltage.

“Greg helped me make my piece sound more professional, and we also figured out some new computer programs to help me write out the music to help the musicians play the right sounds,” said Elias. “I actually started to write this song using GarageBand (software) about nine months ago.” Connell then took the process through several other music software programs.

“I thought it was very innovative of him to want to hear what human musicians would do with his music,” said Gaston. “They are all original compositions but he decided to focus on one piece so that for the whole process, he had to learn what he thought he could live with in human interaction and improvisation and how that would develop.”

Connell’s main focus was to integrate with the student musicians and Gaston’s aim was to stretch the boundaries.

“For him to say that he would rather sacrifice this preciseness and perfectness (of the computer music) and add the human soul and element of mistakes and individual interpretation,” Gaston said. “I want to hear that in my creations, and to be thinking along those lines as a teenager is quite incredible. That’s what drew me to him, taking the leap of faith and I thought I’m going to take it along with him.”

Connell said he is proud that college musicians are willing to play his composition. Elias wrote out the traditional music notations for the musicians and made the loops he will use during the performance.

Essentially, loops are two-measure sections of electronic sounds that he will play while the musicians improvise and play over the loops. The performing sequences of the piece will primarily be in real time and the machine (computer) has to be flexible enough to make the loops work so Elias will be playing along with the actual musicians.

“I thoroughly love what I do,” Gaston said. “Elias is a teenager who is thinking beyond his years, he is creating. He’s not just interpreting and arranging, he is creating; and to be able to work with the raw talent that he possesses has been a real kick for me as a composer.

“This is going to be a very original event that’s going to take place next Wednesday — the posters are up and there’s a real buzz around campus. But no matter the size of the audience, these young people are so enthused, energized and creative that they will play past what they think they can do for the show.”