Announcing our Collage Fellow: Joseph Sowa

by David Stevens

Congratulations, Joseph, on your appointment as Collage’s Fellow for our 2017-18 season! We are looking forward to premiering your work in March and welcoming you into the Collage family. Can you tell us a little about your background as a composer? Where are you currently studying? With whom?

Joseph Sowa: Thank you! Growing up I was a violinist and science-fiction nerd. I was also always making things. In sixth grade that meant computer programs. I made this Tie Fighter computer game that my classmates loved and my teacher couldn’t figure out how to remove from our class computer.

A couple years later, I decided to try my hand at writing music. I was already playing and listening to it. In the 90s and early 00s, all these classic sci-fi/fantasy scores were still recent: Star Wars, Star Trek, E.T., Tron, The Dark Crystal, and many others. I loved that music and orchestra music generally. The natural response seemed to be to make more of it. One of the top three moments of my musical life was when my middle school orchestra premiered my “Scene for String Orchestra.” Hearing that first live performance of my music was utterly thrilling. I was hooked. I enrolled at Brigham Young University as a music composition major, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.

Oddly enough, even though film music played a large roll in getting me composing, I never seriously pursued it but instead dug deeper into the concert world from high school onward. After completing my bachelor’s and master’s at Brigham Young University, I came to Brandeis University in 2013 for my doctorate. I’m currently writing my dissertation with Yu-Hui Chang and David Rakowski as my advisors.

I hope you have had a chance to encounter some of Massachusetts’ music scene since beginning at Brandeis. Have there been any performances/lectures/meetings that have stood out to you?

JS: The scene in Massachusetts has been fantastic. Orchestra being my first musical love, it’s been a dream to see to one of the world’s great orchestras, the BSO, as often as I can. NEC’s orchestras are also quite good, and soon after I came to Boston, they helped me cross John Adams’ Harmonielehre off my concert bucket list. The roar of the orchestra in Jordan Hall at the conclusion of that work was thrilling.

Beyond that, there’s just so much going on that many nights you can literally stumble unaware onto great shows. Several years ago, a friend was visiting me from out of town, and we did just that. We couldn’t get tickets for the concert we were planning to see but instead came across one of Joseph Summer’s Shakespeare Concerts. It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen in Boston. The musicality and showmanship were totally engrossing.

Who and what are some of your compositional influences? What kinds of non-musical interests affect your composing?

JS: My biggest musical interests are color and texture, and my influences echo that preoccupation across genres. I’m just as inspired by the niche work of John Adams, Oliver Knussen, or Anton Webern as I am by the more broadly familiar music of John Williams, Stevie Wonder, or Coldplay.

Outside of music, I find my composing most affected by the natural world and my training as an editor. I specialized in magazine editing in my undergraduate minor and worked in public relations before I came to Brandeis. How I think about words has suffused my musical creative process. For instance, I approach composing more in terms of revising drafts than in writing linearly and perfecting the details along the way.

The influence of nature on my work is just as strong but more of a mystery to me. I like hiking and being outside, but I’m neither a naturalist nor an avid outdoorsman. Still, whenever I title my pieces, many of the associates I make to my music are natural ones: “A Field Guide to Natural History,” “Summer Has Ten Thousand Stars,” “Under an Orange Sky,” “Coruxa en Carbayu” (Asturian for “the owl in the oak”), and others.

For those unfamiliar with your music, what would work of yours should they check out? Why?

JS: My most recent piece, “Blossom Music,” captures all of the features I described: a love for layers and colors, echoes of Oliver Knussen’s music, and the influence of literature and nature. I had been asked to write a Pierrot ensemble piece for the fresh inc festival. It took me a few weeks to find a suitable text, but when I settled on Emily Dickinson’s poems about flowers, the musical ideas just flowed.

In her lifetime Emily Dickinson was better known as a gardener than as a poet. To Susan Dickinson, a “Love of flowers” was her sister-in-law Emily’s primary attribute. Susan was one of a tiny handful that knew Emily intimately. Only when Emily’s poems were posthumously published did others discover that the reclusive ”Myth of Amherst” had vast knowledge of human heart. My piece "Blossom Music" seeks to capture this hidden intensity of feeling in two of Dickinson's flower poems.

To learn more about Joseph’s burgeoning and diverse career, visit his website at