Wondering how Penn’s unofficial alma mater 'Red and Blue' would sound if it was written by different composers? Look no further than PennCompose, the club founded by first–year Anthony Hu (C ’24) that has created a community of music composers who meet weekly to share pieces, complete musical challenges, and talk about anything related to music.
Hu’s inspiration for the club comes from his clear passion for composing. “I started playing piano since first grade, and ever since I knew how to smash the keys I wanted to create something of my own. It’s just a quirk about me—I like creating things.”
The skillful pianist and violinist has never had formal training in music theory, and has instead found his musical voice through constant exploration and experimentation. “It’s really just pushing the limits, see how expressive I can be, see how much of myself I can pour into this sort of music, utilizing these different techniques that I pick up from here, from there, from anywhere on Google.”
Meanwhile, one of the club’s vice presidents, Gabrielle Gillen (C, W ’23), finds beauty and ease in the structures set by her extensive formal music theory and composition training. Attending a performing arts middle and high school, Gillen had the unique opportunity to compose scores for her classmates’ short films. She fell in love with the experience: “I got to sit in a theater and hear my music all around for the first time, seeing the narrative and how my music fit in with that.” Now, she dreams of composing scores for film, TV, and video games.
Like Hu, the sophomore from Southern California began her passion for composing in elementary school. “I think it was in second grade,” she recalls. “My dad had gotten laid off, and I was like, ‘Aww, I want to do something to make him feel better.’ So I wrote a song called 'Come to Me' on the piano and I sang to it and he played guitar to it.”
Gillen’s creative family has clearly helped foster her artistic talent. All her siblings play guitar and frequently get together to share their creations. In fact, she has an unofficial rule for evaluating her music: “A song is successful if it makes my dad cry.”
Indeed, one of Gillen's favorite parts of musical composition is the tight–knit community that it forms. She shares a touching story about one of her proudest pieces, “Robin’s Flight,” which she composed for a family friend’s newborn child named Robin, exploring the different cultures and parts of life that the baby would experience before "leaving the nest." With a fond smile, she associates the music to the joyous and rewarding experience she had performing and recording the piece alongside two close friends.
The film score composer admits that she has little experience with musical dissonance, unlike PennCompose’s other vice president, Anthony Mohr (C ’24). Having picked up drums in sixth grade and piano in eighth grade, Mohr slowly entered the exciting world of music composition through the lens of jazz: “I was learning all this stuff about jazz piano, all this crazy music theory, and I was beginning to see that there were really no limits to how far you can take music. I began to get really inspired and excited about what I can create.”
The College first–year also enjoys the opportunity to express himself through music. “Most of the composing I do is for myself, it’s the same kind of idea as keeping a diary.” For instance, Mohr has recently composed a short piano piece in his home in Kentucky, tentatively titled “Isolation.” He characterizes the work as “evoking a feeling of emptiness,” which he accomplishes by using “these very spaced–out piano voicings for the chord and the harmony.”
Quarantine has provided ample time and inspiration for music composition, it seems. Hu describes his own self–proclaimed magnum opus, a ten–minute piece about the pandemic. “I wanted to illustrate a progression from the start of a virus spreading and the ending where it sort of heals and cures itself, so I explored a lot of pieces that told a story.”
You don’t need to expose your deepest inner feelings about current events to join PennCompose, though. When asked, all three students eagerly reinforce the idea that composing music is for anyone, regardless of musical experience. Gillen advises, “There’s not some magic secret formula where everybody’s like ‘this is exactly how you compose.’ Everyone’s got their own way, and part of the composition process is discovering how you compose.”
Mohr adds: “There might be some music critics that are rolling in their graves right now at the mention of the idea of 'compose what you want,' and to that I say, ‘So be it. Gen Z baby ... It’s our time now!’”
If you're interested in joining PennCompose...