Kyle Pederson ’17 reflects on how VCFA influenced his five winning compositions for the 2018-19 American Prize

Kyle Pederson ’17 has been awarded the 2018-19 American Prize in Composition for the choral octavos professional division with his pieces “Can We Sing the Darkness to Light?,” “Psallite,” “In the Beginning,” “Stars,” and “A Mighty Fortress Is our God.”

All five of Kyle’s winning pieces were influenced in some important way by VCFA. One was born out of an assignment and a challenge by faculty advisor John Fitz Rogers; one was workshopped in the on-campus Choral Workshop; three were critiqued in masterclasses that take place during residency; and one formed the basis of several discussions with faculty advisor Jonathan Bailey Holland. In addition to one other centerpiece work with John Fitz Rogers, these five compositions were Kyle’s first pieces to be accepted for publication by a major publisher.

“The whole journey of these pieces, and my time/experience at VCFA in general, is a perfect example of how VCFA can prepare, develop, improve, and help launch a career. All this and I’m not even two full years removed from graduation!”

Below, Kyle reflects on each of his compositions and the ways they were developed, revised, and improved with feedback from both students and faculty members in the MFA in Music Composition:


Can We Sing the Darkness to Light

One of John Fitz Rogers‘ initial challenges to me after hearing some of my work was to be more intentional in getting the music out of root position. This whole piece began as a noodle out of root position, and throughout this piece I looked for ways to keep either the vocal parts or piano accompaniment in some sort of inversion. This allowed a return to root position to feel that much more impactful.

John suggested I look for a way to get the middle section into a different key, so that a return to the original key at the climax of the piece would be more dramatic. This modulation into the middle section proved additionally helpful in setting the melody more comfortably in the tenor range.

John also suggested I strip back some of the piano accompaniment in sections, wanting to be sure it didn’t become “the feature” and overshadow the singing and text. My tendency (in general) is to write an overly involved piano accompaniment, so this continual “push back” from John and others throughout my time at VCFA has been particularly helpful.

John and I talked a lot about the final couple of measures. Does it make sense to end it in tonic? What sort of “resolution” is needed? Or not needed? Are you asking a question, or making a statement? This conversation was helpful as I navigated how to close the piece.


Stars and Psallite

Both of these pieces were played and critiqued in masterclass and formed the basis of several discussions with Jonathan Bailey Holland. The comment that most stuck with me from Jonathan was a metaphor of color. He asked me what color I thought was evoked throughout the piece Stars….is it a purple piece? Light blue? Gray? And then he asked whether I wanted there to be only one color throughout, or whether the piece would be stronger by adding or mixing in another color. In the end, I decided to keep the color consistent, wanting the “purple” nature of the piece to wash over the listener and establish a consistent tone/color from start to finish. I think that helps strengthen this particular piece. However, I continue to think of that feedback from Jonathan in other pieces I write–and there have been several occasions when I realize that bringing in some other colors (or switching colors altogether) is exactly what that particular piece needs at that time to keep things fresh and interesting.


A Mighty Fortress is Our God

This piece was workshopped in the Choral Workshop. I collaborated with fellow VCFA-er Christian Dancy to write the electric guitar part. In workshop, the piece was very much in early draft form, and I was able to get a sense of how some of the tensions throughout would sound and how “sight readable” the piece might be.

The most helpful feedback in this process was from the students themselves, who suggested things like: “You clearly wanted to keep building energy, but as a tenor that part was simply too low to generate much energy or volume.” As a result of that particular comment, I re-wrote those measures so that they sat more comfortably in the tenor wheelhouse.

Another person said, “You have this really nice tension (interval of a 2nd) at the ends of phrases…but I think it happens a couple times too often. I think it would stay fresher if you only introduced that tension a few times throughout the piece for maximum impact.” It was a brilliant suggestion, and following that insight resulted in a more interesting, more impactful piece.


In the Beginning

This piece was also critiqued in a masterclass. One of the suggestions from Jonathan Bailey Holland and Mike Early was to make the clarinet more central to the piece; in the masterclass draft the clarinet was mostly “in the gaps”…and they suggested integrating it more fully into the piece so it didn’t read as an “afterthought.” In the final version, I did exactly that–and I think the piece is much stronger with a more cohesive and integral clarinet part. In some respects, I think, the clarinet “makes” the piece.

Finally, John Fitz Rogers used to talk about a homunculus (a term I had never heard before but now think about constantly) sitting on his shoulder as he composes and asking certain questions of the music. I think about this image often (not in a horror-movie sort of way)–a little homunculus that combines the vast and varied wisdom and perspective of each of the VCFA faculty sitting on my shoulder and asking questions and providing insight as I compose at the piano. What a gift that has been!


Kyle Pederson is equally at home as a pianist, educator, lyricist, and composer. 

His first album, Renewal, a collection of acoustic arrangements of traditional hymns arranged for piano, violin, cello, guitar, oboe and percussion, was chosen as one of the top albums of the year by Mainly Piano in 2010.  12.25, an album of piano solo arrangements of Christmas carols/hymns, was released in 2012 and listed as high as #4 in ZMR national radio airplay monthly charts.  Tracks from both projects continue to have life on radio and internet stations worldwide, and both albums are available for download on iTunes. 

In 2014, Kyle dove headlong into his life-long passion for choral music and has received awards from such choral ensembles as Cerddorion (NY), Little Singers of Armenia, and the International Lutheran Youth Choir.  Commissions have included the TAISM international high school choral festival, AMIS international high school and middle school honor choirs, MN All-State SA choir, Choral Arts Initiative, and a variety of school, church, and community choruses. Commercial recordings of Kyle’s works include New Choral Voices Volume II and III, released by Ablaze Records, featuring emerging composers in the choral field, and KC VITAs Chamber Choir.

Pederson earned his MFA in music composition from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Education from University of St Thomas (MN), and his BA from Augustana University (SD).  In additional to a variety of freelance projects, Kyle works part time in the music ministry at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN, where he composes and arranges music for a variety of services. Most of Kyle’s works are self-published, with select pieces published by Walton, Santa Barbara, Carl Fischer, Galaxy, and MusicSpoke.

You can hear compositions from Kyle’s winning portfolio on Soundcloud and learn more about Kyle and his work at


The American Prize is a series of new, non-profit national competitions in the performing arts providing cash awards, professional adjudication and regional, national and international recognition for the best compositions and performances by ensembles and individuals each year in the United States at the professional, college/university, church, community and secondary school levels.



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Renee Baker Took Flight in New Directions at VCFA

Renee Baker was already forging new paths in music by the time she came to VCFA. She had established herself as a strong musical force, with her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project. She went to the school seeking credentials to aid her in the cut-throat world of art music. And she found that. But she also found an environment that let her explore all of her wildest creative impulses—and an unexpected partnership that sent her off in a whole new direction.

“The teaching part of my life was long over,” Renee says. “I was 55 when I applied to this school. I don’t think they knew why I wanted to come here.” But Renee knew exactly why. “What you are purchasing is the affiliation, the ability to attach the identity of the business to your name. This is the be-all and end-all of what colleges are. When you go into it with that in mind, you go in trying to grab everything you can. It’s like the blue light special at Kmart. I’m taking my buggy and I’m grabbing as much as I can as fast as I can. That’s how I approached it.”

And she did grab everything. Renee was hoping to learn more about nontraditional notation, and more avant-garde methods of composition. “Everything I submitted was , but I knew when I came that I wanted to spend some time studying nontraditional notation. And that’s where I dove in feet-first, head-first, butt-first. Because I felt that was a safe environment to explore it in.”

She made friendships with her mentors that have lasted to this day. She credits her first mentor, Jonathan Bailey Holland, with setting the tone of the program for her. That first semester, she was working with a unique system of graphic scores—gorgeous, vividly painted works that guide performers through a piece under her guidance. These paintings don’t look anything like traditional music scores. She came in that first semester with 16 paintings, 19×30 each, as her piece to be performed. Jonathan found the unique approach interesting, and was eager to hear the results. Renee knew it was unorthodox.

“I said ‘I promise I won’t leave you with egg on your face. I know what I’m doing.’ And it was a huge hit and it kinda set the pace. After that, I felt free.” She cites Jonathan’s openness to exploration as a huge part of the program for her—perhaps even the most important part of the student/mentor relationship. Renee’s directness and clarity of vision are legendary, and Jonathan trusted that and let it flourish. She says, “VCFA meets the student wherever they are in their compositional life, and gives each student wings.”

Renee was tearing through new ideas at a speed all her own, staying up late and poring over rare scores and books in the library. But then a faculty member sought her out with a proposal she wasn’t expecting. Don DiNicola wanted her to score Body and Soul, a 1925 “race film” by Oscar Micheaux. She’d actually had producers pitch her the film before, and nothing had come of it. Don’s sincerity won her over, but she had a condition. She wasn’t going to try her hand at snippets or scenes. She was going to score the entire feature-length film. It was unheard of in the program and wildly ambitious for a six-month workload. But Don dove right in with her.

Renee’s scoring is bold work. Rather than rely on themes for individual characters, like you might see in a John Williams score, her music cuts straight to the heart of a scene’s emotional struggle. She goes past the surface-level interactions and into each character’s inner turmoil. “Don was really responsible for helping my ideas to crystallize. He’d send me pieces (of the film) in small batches and I’d send something back. It was that partnership that really helped formulate the truly abstract nature of how I think, and distill it into film scoring. That really is my nature. Don’t let the housewife disguise fool you.”

“This man taught me so much about how to look at film, how to look at what’s going on in the background, things that normal viewers don’t even see. He had me studying what was on the walls, the shoes they had on. The tables, and chairs, and then at the end of that process he said, ‘So you know you’re a film composer, right?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ He said, ‘You’re also a filmmaker. I listened to your comments, and everything you said, and you’re a filmmaker.’ I said, ‘Nah I don’t wanna make film.’ But now, of course I’ve got probably 20 experimental films in rotation. Because Don took the lid off and gave me permission. You can open something here. I came in really wanting to look at extremely contemporary classical music, and develop my vocabulary for graphic scores, and then meandered over the line, crossed the lane into the film scoring.”

At the time, Baker was working on an opera, Sunyata—another point of synchronicity with Don DiNicola. “I told him, ‘it’s about the time period after you’re pronounced dead, to the time that you’re actually gone.’ He said, ‘oh, you’re talking about the Bardos!’ Next thing I knew, Don gave me this fabulous translation of the Tibetan book of the dead, the source material my opera was based on.”

She was already talking to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago about producing the opera. But when they learned about her Body and Soul re-score, they jumped at the chance to premiere that, as well. It was a hit. And it sparked a massive jumping off point for Renee, who never does anything in half-measures.

“When I’m interested in something, I exhaust it before I move on. At this point now, I’ve probably scored over 150 silent films. I’ve actually developed 14 film festivals. I developed themes crossing all sorts of boundaries. Ethnic boundaries, geographical boundaries, and matched films that you normally would not see together. I took the first one to Indiana University last year. They did a four-film festival of my work. And that precipitated another invitation. I just got back from an almost two-week residency at Indiana. They wanted a score to The Scar of Shame, a 1927 silent, using the orchestra from the Jacob School of Music, interaction with people in the jazz department, lecturing on film and sound design to film classes and taking in my own experimental series into their Black Experimentalist classrooms. It was amazing. They said, ‘We need you to touch all the areas.’ I talked to composition students, film students, jazz students, orchestra students.”

She also puts on screenings locally with the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project

“It’s from an ugly period in our history, but didn’t Charlottesville just happen? It was such a challenge for me, and I put it in the can. Then Charlottesville happened, and when the ACLU called me, I said ‘I have just the vehicle.’ This is information. We need to see it. Especially in light of the fact that it was the first feature-length film shown in the White House. And Woodrow Wilson thought it was a masterpiece, with the KKK saving the white people from us. The score brings it to today.”

The film scoring has blown up in a big way for Renee. From her screenings in Chicago, to residencies at universities, to screening at film festivals across the world, it’s taken her already-booming career to new heights. She credits the combination of her self-starter attitude and VCFA’s openness.

“What impressed me was a comment Jonathan Bailey Holland made. He said, ‘This is your program.’ I am 2,000 percent a self-starter. I left there with nothing I wanted to explore left unexplored. Go knowing what you want to get out of a master’s-level program. For me, I wanted validation of concepts, of research, of exploring. I wanted it validated for a program of this time. This program left me open. There were no closed doors.”


You can stream and download tracks from the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project at their Bandcamp page here.
Renee’s website is here, and includes a store where you can check out her recent film work.Running sports | Footwear