Thesis Spotlight: Stuart McKenzie Composes “The Making of a Hat”

Thesis Spotlight: Stuart McKenzie Composes “The Making of a Hat”

Stuart McKenzie ’16 presented his music composition thesis, “The Making of a Hat,” last Saturday night in Buckley Recital Hall. The recital consisted of five different pieces, performed by singers and a string quartet. Watching McKenzie’s hard work come to life was a true joy, and it reminded me of the wide-ranging talents present on this campus. The arts and living team interviewed McKenzie to learn more about his experience of executing a music composition thesis.

Q: What was your inspiration behind “The Making of a Hat?”

A: When I first conceived my thesis, I wanted to show how far I’ve come in the years that I’ve been studying music. I started studying music theory when I took AP music theory as junior in high school with my future jazz band instructor. Music theory is kind of like looking at the building blocks of music. It showed me that while there is a creative side to music, there is also a bit of a science behind it. In music, theory comes after practice. People made things that sounded good and went back and studied why it sounded good. And it was amazing to me; it changed the way I looked at music. I was then able to predict the way something would sound and notice what parts of music evoked different emotions in me, which is what I explore in my thesis. After listening to a bunch of different music, I tried to compose pieces that sound more like what I’m hearing in my head. I spent a lot of time messing around at the keyboard until I got the right sound. When I composed stuff previously, I had a more set system and with my thesis I was freer, which was refreshing. I wasn’t being graded on how well I used this chord procession or applied a certain theory. It didn’t have to sound classical; this was really what I wanted it to be.

The show order itself is pseudo-chronological in that the first piece is evocative of the renaissance music that I first started listening to when I started singing, which was my first year at boarding school as a sophomore. And then the piece that comes after is a choral piece. When I first started working with Eric Whitacre, a very popular American composer who writes beautiful music with a lot of chord clusters, I knew I wanted to someday write a piece that reminded me of his style. Then I have a jazz quintet, which is based on a song I came across in my jazz voices class last semester. This piece is my take on big band, swing jazz, as if played by a string quartet. I took a special topics course last semester on jazz composition because my friend said it was one of the best classes he’d ever taken, and it really opened his ear to new ways of composing and listening to things. However, the same professor wasn’t teaching the class anymore so I approached him and asked if he’d be willing to teach the same material in a special topics course. So it was me and one other person, Steve, who’s also writing a composition thesis, and it was great. He got me to listen to things I wouldn’t have listened to otherwise and it really opened my ear. It made me want to write something that sounds like big band music, which came out around the 1930s and its really great stuff to listen to. And then the last piece is a duet that Seanna McCall ’17 and I sang with the string quartet in the background, and that probably is the most personal piece. All the text in the piece is pseudo-autobiographical, and I didn’t say explicitly what because I want people to make their own connections to the music. Of the pieces, the last one is the one that means the most to me. And that one’s also touched by jazz, but I think throughout my pieces I’ve quoted various composers and other pieces that I’ve listened to so people who are familiar with the pieces might notice a measure here or there that sounds very familiar to them. That’s my way of tipping my hat to the people who have made it possible for me to write my music.

The reason my performance is called “The Making of a Hat” comes from Steven Sondheim. When I first started writing lyrics my adviser suggested I check out Sondheim’s book, “Look I Made a Hat.” He wrote two books about his journey making music, and the first book is called “Finishing the Hat.” And for me, since I am nowhere near Sondheim’s level, I am still in the making. I am still exploring and feeling out what it means to be a composer, but I’m getting there. I also have a very noticeable hat that I have a strong connection to in regard to my personal development. I wear it during every Zumbyes show that’s on campus. Being in the Zumbyes has been a very transformative musical experience, and the people that I’ve met and the things that I’ve learned with them have made me the person I am today. That is why the hat is in the poster because the group is very much intertwined with my musical development and compositional voice nowadays.

Q: When did you start playing music?

A: I started playing piano when I was 13 years old. First I took lessons alongside my brother and then I continued throughout boarding school and my first semester at Amherst. After that I got too busy to continue with it. I haven’t had as much practice as I would like, so I’m not as comfortable on the piano as I used to be. But I still did most of my compositions on the keyboard because that is my primary instrument.

When I got to boarding school I joined choir, which was a springboard for the other musical groups I joined. I auditioned for the Madrigals, a different type of choir with more difficult music, which helped me improve as a singer. After that, I joined jazz band my senior year as drummer and pianist. I also joined the guitar ensemble as their drummer. I did a couple of musical theater things as well. When I got to Amherst, I joined concert choir and I stayed with them for two years. Nowadays, I’m singing or arranging music with the Zumbyes.

It’s going to be weird once I graduate not having an outlet for singing or music in that sense. Even this semester when I haven’t had any courses requiring me to compose has felt strange; everything I do musically now is on my own accord. It’s nice to have that freedom, but it’s also strange to think that I won’t be turning in music assignments to a professor anymore. Once the concert is over, I still think there’s room to add things and improve things. I may look back at these pieces in five years and want to expand them. Also, I may want to get my masters in composition in the future. I’m still making the hat; I’m nowhere near done here. The hope is that music will never leave my life.

Q: So you’re a music and chemistry major — why this combination?

A: After my experiences in boarding school, I knew I wanted to study music no matter what. Chemistry, of the three main sciences, was always the one that sat best with me. Biology was too much writing and memorization and physics was too much math. Chemistry was a nice feel and something about it has always intrigued me. I’m hoping to apply to pharmacy programs after working for a year or two after graduation and then go into research.

Q: What was your experience when casting musicians for the piece?

A: My singers are all in a cappella groups, except one who was in concert choir before he graduated last year. When I first started thinking about writing and talking to former music majors who have written music theses, one of the main pieces of advice I got was to know your singers’ voices and compose based off that. It’s hard to write when you don’t know someone’s capabilities. This was one of the difficulties I ran into when writing for the string quartet. Since I don’t play a string instrument, it was interesting for me to figure out what was awkward for them to play or what just couldn’t be done. With singers I have a better idea of range and what it’s like to sing.

Q: Finally, what’s the story behind the hat?

A: I don’t know where my mom got it, but my school colors back in Jamaica were red and white. And for one school spirit day she got me the hat. I wore it that day and didn’t really think of it again until sophomore year at Amherst. The Zumbyes wear crazy ties and socks, and when I went home that year I saw the hat and thought it would go perfectly. From that point onwards I started wearing the hat at almost every single major Zumbyes show since I found it. The hat symbolizes my experience and growth with the Zumbyes during my time at Amherst and it will always mean something to me. It’s my music hat. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the hat itself, but while its journey might be coming to a close my own musical journey is far from over. Even if I never wear it again, I’ll always remember what it signified in terms of my musical transition.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.