Music composition graduate finds her own unique voice with sonic ecosystem compositions

By

Lynne MacDonald

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Laura Brackney, Doctor of Musical Arts in music composition, views composing as a form of sonic gardening, cultivating each work’s interrelationships and sounds as ecosystemic material.

Brackney is currently serving as the composer-in-residence for the ASU Wind Ensemble and recently completed a commission for solo carillon for Mayo Clinic’s Dolores Jean Lavins Center for Humanities in Medicine. The commission was requested by the clinic’s official carillonneur, Austin Ferguson, who also commissioned Brackney’s first work after earning her undergraduate degree.

 “I am grateful to be the composer-in-residence with the ASU Wind Ensemble this year,” said Brackney. “It was a great experience to work with the musicians, doctoral conductor Kristen Zelenak and Dr. Jason Caslor to write a piece about a river I love.” 

“Cloudlands,” the 2022 composition in the "Music for Mayo" Carillon Music Series, will be available in early August free of charge to carillonneurs around the world. Brackney describes the piece in the center’s news release as “inspired by the process of loss and acceptance. The music works to reconcile the differences between a persistent ostinato and freer, wave-like gestures. Competing materials drift against each other, merge and condense before ultimately dissipating peacefully. The amorphous harmonic language represents clouds of bells which collide and blur into each other. Cloudlands: a place of dreams, of ‘impractical speculation,’ of unreal skies.”

In addition to traditional concert music, she has created music for theater, film, fixed media and bicycle installations.

While at ASU, Brackney delved into electronic music and explored new compositional techniques. She has written several stunning works that extend the usual timbral possibilities of instruments and has collaborated extensively with the Wind Ensemble to develop her art.

“Laura has so many positive attributes, it’s difficult and would be unfair to just list one,” said Fernanda Navarro, assistant professor of composition in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “Laura has been very supportive of the community; she is also curious, multifaceted, creative and industrious.”

Brackney’s work has been commissioned by the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, the Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Blanton Museum of Art, the 78th anniversary of the UT Kniker Carillon, the New Media Art and Sound Summit, the Portland Youth Philharmonic and Collide Arts, among others.

Her work has been premiered at the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium and the Look and Listen Festival by Grit Collaborative + Oh My Ears and performed by groups such as the AURORA trio, Gamelan Lipi Awan and Quince Ensemble. In 2020, her string quartet Desertification won first prize in the ASU Mykytyn Distinguished Composition Award.

Brackney received a Special Talent Award and Teaching Assistantship, which she said allowed her to pursue her doctoral degree.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I remember seeing a friend who was taking composition lessons have a lot of fun writing, and I decided I wanted to try it too. I don’t think there was a specific “moment,” but it’s something I decide to do every day. 

Q: What is something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I don’t think there was just one thing specifically, but I am really glad that I got to meet so many wonderful people. I have learned a lot from my teachers, friends and other students.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: For the diversity in styles and perspectives of the composition department.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: There are so many wonderful professors, but I would really like to acknowledge my committee chair, Dr. Fernanda Navarro, for being an amazing mentor. 

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Find other students to collaborate with, try to get enough sleep, prioritize your mental health, and try to take breaks and have fun.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I share an office with Alicia Castillo, and I feel really lucky to have a space to focus on my work. It is also nice to be able to step outside and warm up in the courtyard and say hello to people.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I hope to maintain my creative practice, have some impact on society and the community around me and to keep teaching.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I have been researching the rhizosphere a lot lately for my dissertation project, so my answer is that I would like to shift away from conventional, industrial agriculture toward regenerative agriculture. We could move toward a sustainable system that builds healthy soil — carbon sequestration via plants and healthy soil has great potential to reduce our carbon footprint — and pays farmworkers.