Composing for the greater good

Composer TJ Cole has been commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Lawrence Symphony Orchestra. Her works have been performed by the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Cabrillo Festival Orchestra and Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra. She’s been coached by Jennifer Higdon, Samuel Adler and eighth blackbird.

She’s also only 23.

Cole has been turning heads from a young age. Introduced to piano at age 4, Cole started improvising and composing at age 6. She released her first album, including eight original compositions, at age 10.

“I just enjoyed creating more than I did practicing,” said Cole. “I remember practicing a Beethoven sonata and just improvising around one chord instead of practicing what was written.”

Cole’s piano teacher recognized her pupil’s talent and suggested that Cole should explore musical opportunities outside her hometown. She recommended Interlochen Arts Camp, an institution that her own daughter attended as a vocal artist. In 2003, at just 9 years old, Cole attended Interlochen for the first time.

Cole would return for several more summers, studying piano as a junior and intermediate student before turning to composition in her high school years. By her junior year of high school, Cole realized she needed to stay at Interlochen year-round.

“Summers were always so special for me,” she said. “Interlochen was such a special atmosphere and everyone was so dedicated to their art, which wasn’t something I was experiencing in my hometown.”

Cole’s decision was also influenced by her decision to pursue composition rather than performance. “I really liked the composition teacher at the time, John Boyle,” she said. “I couldn’t find a composition teacher in my area, so I started talking to my parents about going to Academy.”

Under Boyle’s tutelage, Cole flourished. “He had such a wide knowledge of not just composers and classical music, but all kinds of music, like rock and African drumming,” said Cole. “Him having that musical knowledge really helped me expand my own musical knowledge. He was also a really good teacher of basics: things like how to start thinking about music in your own way and putting it on paper, which seems simple, but it’s really hard to find someone who teaches that well.”

Boyle was not Cole’s only teacher at Interlochen; Cole also studied under Cynthia Van Maanen, who still teaches composition at Interlochen Arts Academy. “TJ and I would sit quietly for long periods of time thinking about how to solve certain compositional problems,” she said. “Those periods of quiet were pleasant and reflective.”

“I think of her as a very creative, thoughtful, observant and talented person in composition, and those traits were also clearly visible as she worked with and supported her peers in the composition department.Her music reflects these traits as well--beautifully crafted in the details, thoughtful in its timing and structure, and observant of the world around us.”

Cole also remembers working with her peers. “Some of my favorite memories were going to the library with other musicians and sitting in one of the listening rooms,” she said. “We’d ask the librarians for a random CD and the matching score, and we’d sit there looking at the score, listening to the music and talking about it. It’s something I haven’t experienced anywhere else.”

After graduating from Interlochen, Cole enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music to continue her composition studies. While at Curtis, Cole received numerous commissions and produced a remarkable compositional output. In 2015, she was a recipient of the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award.

Cole graduated last May, but remained at Curtis for the 2016-17 academic year as an ArtistYear fellow. As a member of the fellowship, Cole uses her art to participate in community engagement projects.

“I’m working with Project HOME, which is an organization which helps chronically homeless adults and families find permanent housing,” she said. Twice per week, Cole visits one of project HOME’s many sites, called Kate’s Place, to host music group meetings for the site’s residents. One weekly visit is a performance-based visit. On some performance days, Cole brings Curtis students to perform for the residents; on others, Cole and another ArtistYear fellow play popular tunes on their instruments—piano and viola respectively—for the residents to sing along to, karaoke-style.

During the second weekly visit, Cole leads a small group of residents in a songwriting workshop. “There are a handful of residents who are heavily invested in creating their own music, but don't have the tools or training to put their ideas on paper, perform their ideas themselves or create musical material,” said Cole. “The residents write their own lyrics, and I work with them on putting the music they imagine to their words. We've played around with writing rap, country, pop, samba, classical, musicals—truly, a little bit of everything! Their passion for music is some of the strongest I've ever seen.”

Cole is currently working on bringing more Curtis students to the site and planning a showcase of the residents’ compositions. Cole also recently began a secondary partnership with the Bethesda Project, which she hopes will also result in a songwriting workshop.

When not composing with the Kate’s Place residents, Cole keeps her personal composition skills sharp through commissions and daily practice. “I try to compose for at least an hour every day,” she said.

Cole primarily derives the inspirations for her works from other forms of art. “I love visual art; I’m a very visual person,” she said. “I’m currently working on a piece that is based off a poem.” Cole also enjoys pop music, and often creates her own arrangements and covers of popular songs.

Cole also draws inspiration from her musical family. Her piece “One More Blue, One More Gray,” which was performed by Interlochen Arts Academy students at the Lincoln Center in January, was inspired by an old Civil War song sung to her by her father and grandfather.

Cole hopes to attend a graduate program for composition in the fall, and has already applied to several programs. “I hope to continue some community engagements,” she said. “I’m not sure what that will look like because I’m not sure yet what city I’ll end up in.”

She is, however, certain of one thing.

“I don’t see myself ever leaving composition,” she said.