News | July 29, 2021

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Music grad scores national award for young composers

ASCAP Foundation honors writers ‘taking concert music in new and exciting directions’

A 2019 FGCU graduate’s original music has struck a chord with a national organization that singles out promising young composers for recognition.

Paul Berlinsky, 26, received The ASCAP Foundation’s Morton Gould Young Composer Award, as well as its Leo Kaplan Award, for a nine-minute work for wind quartet called “The Inner Light.” The competition is open to American composers of original, classical concert music who are under 30. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) is the leading organization for protecting musical copyrights and ensuring compensation for members. Its charitable foundation supports American music creators and encourages their development through education and talent development programs.

Photo shows FGCU graduate
Getting involved with band as an undergraduate at FGCU rekindled Paul Berlinsky’s passion for music and inspired him to change majors. Photos submitted.

“The young composers recognized by The ASCAP Foundation are taking concert music in new and exciting directions,” President Paul Williams said in a press release. “They are the future of the genre, and it gives us great pleasure to support and empower them to further their talents.”

The national recognition represents a high note for Berlinsky and for FGCU, which offers degrees in music performance, music education and music therapy. Composition is covered in some courses.

Berlinsky changed his major from software engineering to music education after rediscovering a love of music rooted in his youth. He took extra classes and independent studies to develop his composing skills, which led to his work being premiered by fellow students in solo recitals and orchestral concerts.

For a composer, achieving success in the rarefied world of classical music typically involves obtaining commissions for new work, collecting royalties on published pieces and perhaps a position with an established academic or performing institution. The ASCAP acclaim could serve as a prelude to a higher profile for Berlinsky, who recently completed his master of music composition degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance.

“I always thought if I could pick a career path, composing would be a dream career,” says Berlinsky.  “When I was little, I composed at the piano. I started piano lessons in elementary school and then trombone in middle and high school. I missed that when I started college.  When I joined the FGCU band I got back into it. I really got into putting my creative energy into producing music. Hopefully, I can use the momentum from this award to build toward something bigger.”

Jason Bahr, a Bower School of Music & the Arts faculty member from 2010 to 2020, first noticed Berlinsky’s composing talents in his music theory class and later worked with Berlinsky in his independent studies. He describes Berlinsky as “very motivated and very supportive of his fellow students” and richly deserving of this national recognition.

“It’s a big jewel in the crown, one of the most prestigious awards that a student composer can receive,” says Bahr, an independent composer himself. “For his age, and where he’s at in his career, it doesn’t get better than this. I hope he continues to compose — he’s very good at it.”

Past winners have gone on to earn Pulitzer Prizes for music and coveted positions at prestigious conservatories and orchestras, Bahr notes.

Classical soundscape is diverse

Berlinsky came to FGCU via Cooper City, Florida, as a software engineering major with a music minor. He was always good at math and enjoyed gaming and problem solving. Getting involved with band at FGCU rekindled his passion for music and inspired him to change his plans. A Vitelli Memorial Scholarship awarded through the FGCU Foundation helped him complete his education.

By the time he graduated as an Honors student, Berlinsky had already won a composition competition of the Southeastern Composers League, for a nine-minute, multi-instrumental work inspired by Monet paintings. A self-described “composer and sound artist,” he writes music for a range of performance, from acoustic to electronic, solo to orchestral, traditional instruments to ambient recordings. He draws inspiration from life experiences and imagination, the natural world and world history.

When it comes to classical music, many people think Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. So last millennium. Contemporary composers write not only for traditional instruments and but also for electronics, noise, samples and sound effects. With digital platforms, they can also reach wider audiences than predecessors who relied on wealthy patrons, star musicians or symphony orchestras to get their compositions premiered and promoted.

“The contemporary classical world is one of the most diverse in terms of sound and subgenres,” Berlinsky says. “The modern landscape is very wide and very vast. You’ll find so many subgroupings of people following classical traditional in the modern world. I like to think that it’s more open.”

Photo shows FGCU graduate
Berlinsky recently finished his master of music composition degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance.

Many of his compositions achieve a cinematic quality that conjures images and feelings in the listener’s mind. In fact, films scores influenced his musical sensibilities from early on. A “Star Wars” fan, he counts the movie’s legendary composer, John Williams, as a major inspiration.

“I was definitely into classical music more than the average middle or high school student, from studying piano and being in band,” Berlinsky recalls. “But I really got into it through movie scores.”

“Mountain Roads” his 2018 work premiered by the FGCU Wind Orchestra reflects the experiences and emotions of a cross-country trip with his now-wife and fellow alum, Jessica Baker Berlinsky (’16, Environmental Studies). The atmospheric, evocative sounds of “When the River Ran Black,” written for and premiered by the Boston-based contemporary duo Transient Canvas, serves as a lament for Holocaust victims whose remains were disposed of in the Sola River near the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. From the prisoners’ train journey to the horror of the camp and the flowing current of the river, the nine-minute work for bass clarinet, marimba and recorded media transports the listener to a haunting place and time.

“That piece was a really intense piece to write,” Berlinsky says. “Sometimes I have a subject matter in mind that I want to write about it, or I’ll hear something I find amazing and try to play with it. The biggest thing about writing is setting limitations for yourself. There are endless possibilities, so you have to start with some constraints.”

Like an artist who sketches and draws before attempting to paint a mural, Berlinksy started with solo instrumental compositions before moving on to write for chamber groups and larger wind ensembles. A composer has to understand the musical range, qualities and limitations of the individual instruments in order to write for them. Studying music education at FGCU prepared Berlinsky better than some of his grad-school peers who had music performance or composition degrees, he says; music education majors have to take courses different sections of instruments, such as brass and woodwinds.

“You have to be very nerdy about a lot of technical things,” he says of writing for instrumental ensembles. “Composing is romanticized a bit. It’s not all about writing about what your heart says. No one cares what your heart says if the clarinet player can’t play what you wrote.”

Composing ‘The Inner Light’

Berlinsky composed for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn for his ASCAP award-winner, “The Inner Light,” which he wrote during his appointment as composer-in-residence at University of Missouri-Kansas City. Plaza Winds, the conservatory’s graduate fellowship quintet, premiered the work, which includes sections where the musicians breathe through their instruments rather than play on pitch.

“The piece wouldn’t have been possible without Plaza Winds,” he says. “They were really open to trying some crazy things on their instruments. The collaboration was a lot of fun, and I really appreciate how seriously they took my music and all the care they gave to it.”

The composition meant more than usual to Berlinsky. It stemmed from a troubling time when his father-in-law was struggling for life and breath on a ventilator after a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Brain trauma had caused a massive stroke that affected his language and motor functions, and doctors were unsure how impaired he would emerge. (His father-in-law has made progress, but his recovery continues.)

Day after day at the hospital, Berlinsky tuned into the sounds of the machines, the people breathing in the room and the quiet spaces in between. He couldn’t help thinking about the cognitive losses that such injuries cause as well as the potential loss of self-identity — themes he explored through his music.

“There were times in the hospital I was writing the piece, with staff paper and everything, just listening and transcribing the different patterns I heard,” he says. “It has a lot of extremes in it. The opening is loud and chaotic, the middle is quiet and subtle, and the ending is somber and reflective. There were some parts of it that I felt just needed more human elements than pitch alone could provide — hence the focus on breath and muffled whispers through the instruments. Of course, I did all these things for specific reasons, but really it’s up to the listener what they get out of it.”

Clearly, the ASCAP Foundation awards judges were impressed by what they heard — and want the world to hear more from him. Berlinksy is currently working on recording his master’s thesis composition and finishing a commissioned piece.