Award-winning California composer Sebastian Chang is disarmingly articulate and, in addition to being a talented musician, has a reputation for being something of a comedian. He also happens to be 14 years old, the kind of kid teachers probably write home to say how much they enjoy having in their class. And while there’s no way to ignore the novelty of his age, encounters with his music quickly dispel any reason to treat him differently than any other developing composer.
Not that being young hasn’t had its advantages. For one, Chang was recently recognized with a $50,000 fellowship from the Davidson Institute, an award specifically for students under 18 who have demonstrated outstanding achievement. He submitted a portfolio of scores and recordings for five compositions scored for orchestra, chamber, and solo groups and two improvisation performances (with the composer at the piano). The scholarship he won for his work will be applied to future tuition and the purchase of music scores.
Chang’s future is looking very bright indeed, though his CV already reads like that of a composer twice his age. His works have been performed by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, the Orange County High School of the Arts Chamber Orchestra, the Asia America Youth Honor Orchestra, and the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies of Minnesota. His list of awards nearly fills a page. In addition to recognition from ASCAP and BMI, he was recently one of four pre-college composers commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra Festival of the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL). And that’s not even getting into accolades earned for his piano performances.
Chang doesn’t seem to have let the success go to his head and his enthusiasm is infectious. Unfazed by any suggestion that his music is somehow less significant because of his age, he counters, “It’s true that I’m just beginning and I’m still trying to find a sort of style or niche that I can fit in, but I think it’s good that a composer can start young. They can improvise and they can experiment. So I don’t think it’s a question of being taken seriously. It’s a question of starting young and growing.”
The mentorship of composer Jennifer Higdon has recently helped him get a little further down that path of musical development. Under her eye, Chang rehearsed and performed one of his chamber works at the National Youth Orchestra Festival in June. “I had a great time there,” Chang says. “I got to converse a lot with the orchestral musicians. I learned a lot about a composer’s life and colleges and the business side of composing—basically about living as a composer—from Jennifer Higdon.”
For her part, Higdon seems as impressed by Chang as he is by her. “It was great seeing him rehearse and play in his own piece during the festival. And I could tell that he really cared about the musicians he was working with.” Polly Kahn, a vice president of the ASOL, echoes Higdon’s assessment, judging Chang’s NYOF piece “fantastic by any standard, not just because he’s a kid, but compared to any composer. It was just a wonderful piece of chamber music.”
Many different composers have influenced Chang, and he admits that his musical preferences seem to change often. His own compositional development mirrors that fact (hear samples). His first orchestral composition, composed at the age of 7, he says was very much influenced by the likes of Mozart and Haydn. These days, as if working his way through history, he finds inspiration in Stravinsky, Glass, Adams, and Messiaen. It’s Beethoven, however, who remains his most profound influence.
Higdon says she finds it difficult to anticipate what kind of composer the multi-talented yet humble Chang will become as his work matures. “His music has a variety of styles, but all quite sophisticated. He seems so much his own individual person that it’s hard to think of him in comparison to anyone else, which I think is a great thing for an artist to achieve.”
It’s a state of constant exploration Chang consciously works at. “I like to try something new with every composition,” he explains. “I’d really hate to fall into a rut and compose the same type of piece over and over again, so I’m trying to experiment just as much as I can. I figure while I’m still at this age it’s the best time.” He tends to prefer just writing at his desk as opposed to improvising at the piano. “Basically I just come up with a few ideas or a few sketches of what a piece should sound like or the piece that I’m visualizing,” he says, explaining his usual process. “I expand upon them and try and make them cohere with one another.”
As likely to be listening to Smash Mouth or Radiohead as to recordings of Cage or Glass, Chang has also been careful not to ghettoize himself in terms of his personal music exploration, but he has made his creative home in the classical realm. Suzanne Wong-Abe, his first music teacher and a great early influence, introduced him to the idea of composition when he was 5. He now studies composition with Bruce Miller and piano performance with Mark Sullivan while attending the Orange County High School of the Arts. “I guess it’s mattered that I started out young composing in this vein of classical music and I feel that it’s a big world to be explored,” he concedes, but he’s also quick to point out that “a composer should appeal and excite today’s contemporary audience. I think that it’s important to try as much as possible.”
It’s also not lost on him that he is still a kid, but that’s something he says he has had plenty of time to be. He’s fairly certain that music will be his lifelong career—piano performance as well as composition. “Those are two worlds that I’m trying to keep in balance and I’d really like to learn to conduct as well, so maybe I could follow the career path…,” Chang hesitates for the first time before continuing. “This sounds pretentious maybe, but so I could follow the career path of Mahler or Bernstein. I’d love that.”
For the present moment, however, Chang is at work on a piano trio and anticipating the coming school year. And though he may be 14, he has also already learned another valuable composer lesson—how to compromise. “I’ve written three orchestral pieces so far and they haven’t been getting too many performances,” he admits. “So I figure with a piano trio, my chances are higher.”