Five Minutes With Eleanor Aversa, Berklee College of Music
Five Minutes With is a new Composium series where professionals from the music industry share their tips, insights, and opinions
Photo of Eleanor Aversa, provided by Eleanor Aversa
Eleanor Aversa's work has been performed in 20 cities in the United States and abroad, with honors including the Northridge Composition Prize, the Brian M. Israel Prize, and a MacDowell Fellowship. Commissioned by the American Composers Forum, San Francisco Choral Artists, and Amuse Singers, Dr. Aversa is also an Assistant Professor of Composition at the Berklee College of Music.
Earning a degree at Princeton in Russian Language and Literature, Aversa worked as an English teacher and translator in Moscow. Deciding to pursue composition full-time, the composer returned to the U.S. and graduated with an MA in Music Composition from the Aaron Copland School of Music, CUNY Queens College. After that, she pursued a doctorate degree in Composition from the University of Pennsylvania.

"It was not exactly switching, [but] more about focusing," Aversa explains. "I studied and performed music from a young age, and continued this all the way through my undergraduate years. When I applied to graduate school, I used live recordings of my pieces from Tanglewood and Princeton as well as from working with other colleagues post-graduation."
Choosing AN ideal university
The composer notes that the size and location make a big difference when you're studying music: the larger the school, the more players you have to work with and the more teachers you can choose from.

At the same time, smaller institutions have "more of a community feel." The genre you're interested in also plays an important role — for example, going to a university in Boston offers "the Boston Symphony Orchestra [and] a very active jazz scene."
favorite project so far
"My chamber group and narrator piece 'Victory at Arnot,' a true story from the life of labor organizer Mother Jones, was immensely rewarding to research, write, and perform. Being in residence with San Francisco Choral Artists was a delight and made me a better composer. And any orchestra reading or performance is just thrilling."
Why composition?
"I always wanted a career where I could make a meaningful contribution, which is why I started as a teacher and translator. But I had this deep calling to communicate with people through music, to create art that would make them question or look at the world a little differently.

Finally, in my early 20s, I realized that I could never forgive myself if I didn't at least try to pursue a life in composition. Sometimes I joke that it's not that I love composing, but that I can't stand not composing. There are moments of sheer joy when I come up with just the right chord, line, or lyric. But there is also a lot of discipline and struggle.

The decision to spend seven years in graduate school and really hone my craft was made easier because in Russia I discovered that I also love teaching, which meant that I could also make a meaningful contribution that way."
How have technologies impacted your work?
One big difference is the ability to collaborate across distances — you can work with a wider range of people geographically. "Writing electronic and electroacoustic music has also spurred my creativity in new directions — you can create rhythms and use timbre in ways beyond what is possible with acoustic instruments."
How to start out
Gigs and internships. Some will come through the school, and while professors can't hire their own students as it is considered unethical, they can "give names to other[s]." Schools like Berklee also have career fairs, where professionals from all over the music industry come and talk about their experience. "Students sign up for this, talk to representatives, learn about the company, and even get an internship," the composer elucidates.
Work with players as much as possible. "If [you are] writing for an instrument that you don't play, there's no substitute for collaborating with someone who plays that instrument," Aversa tells me. Studying music you admire by copying out the score and making a reduction is just as valuable, because it helps you understand how chords are voiced and what the counterpoint is doing.
What it's like Being a female composer
"The greatest barrier to women entering composition is the way they are raised as musicians: when we study our instruments as kids, the music that we play is almost all by men," Eleanor shares. Being raised in that environment, it's harder for young girls to imagine themselves as composers. Fortunately, things are starting to change, where performers are wanting to expand their repertoire with works by women and people of color.

Eleanor also tells me about The Composer Diversity Database, which is a great resource for finding music by ensemble type and difficulty level and searching by composer identities across a wide range of demographic criteria.

"The biggest change has to come with our earliest music education: giving kids a variety of repertoire and having them see names on those scores that look like their names, composer pictures that look like their pictures. That way they can see themselves as potential composers.

For educators at every level, we mostly pass down the music we love, which is the music we know, which is the music we were taught. The people who write music textbooks, run radio stations, and program symphony concerts often fall into the same pattern. That is how the canon perpetuates itself and stays rather small.

As educators, we have the responsibility to keep discovering new works by new voices and introducing them to our students. There is so much wonderful music out there that deserves to be heard more.

Speaking of beginning musicians: last year I collaborated with the Penny Lazarus piano studio, which raised money to expand the early piano repertoire with pieces by women composers of the last 900 years.

I made a few of the arrangements and brought along some Berklee student composers for the project as well. You can preview and purchase these arrangements here at Sheet Music Plus."
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