December 21, 2014
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Toll Gate senior earns second in Berklee composition contest
Szabolcs Kiss

A senior in Toll Gate’s instrumental and jazz ensembles took his musical ambitions to the next level by entering an original piece into a renowned competition and earning second place, composing a piece fit for the pros.

And to think it all started as a senior project.

Szabolcs Kiss knows that he choose an ambitious senior project, composing his first big band jazz piece with close to 20 parts but never imagined it would turn out like this.

Kiss plays piano and a multitude of other instruments, but can now add composer to his résumé. Although he has been composing jazz quartet pieces for a number of years, Kiss composed and recorded his first big band jazz piece for his senior project, entitled “Wizar of Wham.”

“You need a learning stretch for a senior project. The learning stretch was the big band part,” said Kiss, explaining that he had never composed for some of the required instruments before and needed to speak with players to see if his piece was actually playable. He said he needed to do a great deal of research and rewriting to get it right.

“It was a good summer-long composing part,” said Kiss. “The recording process took a while too.”

In addition to being his senior project, Kiss decided to submit the work into the 2014 Herb Pomeroy Jazz Composition and Arranging Contest, sponsored by Berklee College of Music’s Jazz Composition Department and Professional Writing Division. According to contest rules, the piece needed to be an original composition or original arrangement of an existing song, and be scored for four trumpets, four trombones including a bass trombone, five saxophones, guitar, piano, bass and drums.

“When I was already doing a senior project this big, I knew I wanted to do it for something else as well,” said Kiss about his decision to enter the piece into the competition.

So far the decision has paid of. It was announced on Monday that Kiss earned second place for his work and was awarded a $2,000 partial scholarship to Berkee’s 5-week summer performance program.

“I was hoping for a placing,” admits Kiss. “I was really happy to get second.

Although he doesn’t know what his plans for summer will be, he hopes to make use of that scholarship and take part in the performance program at Berklee this summer.

He also submitted the final recording with his college applications to Berklee and Massachusetts Institute of Technology; although he is unsure if he will pursue music as a career (he has applied for architecture programs at a number of schools), Kiss did decide to apply to Berklee as well as the music program at MIT.

Because Kiss had never written or recorded a piece of this nature, he recruited his piano instructor Dave McNally to assist him as his project mentor. McNally not only helped Kiss with composing the piece, but also connected his student with many of the professional musicians who played in the final recording.

Kiss admits that the under five-minute piece was a big effort and although he is happy with it, it has its issues.

“It would be better if it was easier,” joked Kiss.

According to Kiss’ band director at Toll Gate, George Landrie, who has seen and heard the final piece, it is incredibly difficult to play and he is impressed that his student composed it.

While writing the piece took time, especially the parts for trombone and trumpet because Kiss doesn’t play those instruments, recording took a toll.

“In the beginning it was horrible. It takes such a long time,” he recalls, mentioning how each musician came in to play their part individually, and then the recordings were layered together. “The more we added, the more you started to hear what it sounded like; it got cooler.”

Kiss completed his 97-page conductor score and the instrument parts at the start of the school year, and had the final recording complete earlier over winter break. The musicians came in from all over New England, including three of Kiss’ friends, fellow Toll Gate Jazz Ensemble Rhythm Section members Evan Carley, bass, and Isaac Davis, drums, and a neighborhood friend who attends Bishop Hendricken High School. Kiss played piano on the piece.

Landrie says that the three seniors that make up his Jazz Ensemble rhythm section have been an inspiration.

“Just when I’m thinking things are really quiet around the band room, these seniors are doing something extraordinary behind the scenes like composing, playing a professional gig, auditioning for a college or recording,” said Landrie. “They already play like artists. They are in control over their instrument and play with lots of technique, but it is their highly expressive playing that sets them apart. “

According to Landrie, the same student from Princeton High School in Princeton, N.J. had won the Herb Pomeroy competition for several years, but he truly believed Kiss had a chance to break that streak.

“You listen to this and think, he just might win,” said Landrie.

Although Kiss did come in second, the streak was still broken. First place was awarded to Matt Wong, a student at the San Francisco School of the Arts in California. Third place went to Sam Wolsk of Princeton High School.

Kiss is critical of his work, but was hopeful that his hard work will pay off. “Hopefully, I got it right and this time [the winner] will be from a public school in Rhode Island,” he said a few weeks ago before the winner was announced.

The winning piece will be performed by the Berklee Rainbow Band under the direction of Phil Wilson at the 2014 Berklee College of Music High School Jazz Festival where the Toll Gate Jazz Ensemble will perform. In addition, the winning composer receives a full scholarship to Berklee’s five-week Summer Performance Program.

Kiss was able to hear the winning piece when the Toll Gate Jazz Ensemble competed at the High School Jazz Festival this past weekend. He says the winning piece was drastically different from his, featuring more solos and less big band horn sections than his piece. “It was cool. I liked it,” said Kiss.

Although he did not take top prize, Kiss is still taking away valuable lessons from this experience. “It showed that I can write for big band,” explained Kiss. “Because of the way it was, it had so many parts. The recording took the longest, but the writing was still a long process.

Kiss hopes to continue composing big band pieces, but will work on making them easier to play and writing them quicker.

Looking forward, he also hopes “Wizar of Wham” ends up being a successful senior project when presentations come up in the spring.


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