"Institutions are encouraging musicians now not to hear what they feel."
Nirmali Fenn, an assistant professor of composition and a Sri Lankan-born Australian composer, arrived at Stony Brook University in August. Receiving her education from the universities of New South Wales and Melbourne, she then completed her doctorate at Oxford University, and has worked with faculties at the University of Hong Kong, NYU, and Yale-NUS College Singapore.
Photo of Nirmali Fenn
Looking back on her own college experience, Nirmali still remembers the feeling of trying to understand the depth of what music schools were getting at. "At Oxford, they really were very generic in their expectations for us, and the expectations were huge," she recalls. "I moved from Australia to Oxford to talk to the main composition professor there (Robert Saxton) just to get an idea."

Throughout the course of our conversation, Nirmali places a lot of emphasis on the sincerity of one's voice in music. "A teacher can guide technique, refine pacing and placement, but can't develop sincerity, personality, honesty of your music, and how deep you want to convey your personality in your music," she says. "You can always refine technical ability, but if the applicant only speaks in terms of technique, they've lost my interest."

While seeing someone's potential is very hard and requires meticulous work, the professor looks at whether one's voice can go further — if you fight for what you believe in, and if you don't have that as a musician, you are just not going to make it any further beyond the degree. Mentioning a particular portfolio that the composition faculty at Stony Brook accessed, Nirmali talks about how that student had an issue that she really wanted to voice in her music. Although there were a lot of things for the student to develop technically, the committee were able to see how her music defined who she was, and how she could actually go further with the academic degree. "What I'm interested in is your personality becoming much more singular in your music and that identifies tightly with the self that you want to portray," the professor elaborates.

Stony Brook has a lot of performance faculty who come from The Juilliard School, which Nirmali believes explain the incredible student performer presence on campus. "If you are a composer, you have so many resources to collaborate and experiment, which is a part of developing one's voice," she tells me. Moreover, these performers care about contemporary music, which cultivates the strong composer-performer bonds at the university and the distinctive musical climate. At the same time, there are a lot of interdisciplinary opportunities, especially since music strikes special relationships with medicine, theater, and the visual arts. Stony Brook has the necessary resources to foster that relationship. "It is a big mistake because a good composer is someone who always sees outside of the domain of music, making music function in such a way that reaches mentally, psychologically, and physically," the professor explains.
Photos provided by Nirmali Fenn
As a professor, Nirmali focuses on listening to her students' ideas and then creating further ripples in order to challenge their voice so that it is always under constant transformation. "I create a more contextual framework for your voice, then extend you further — that is the only way I can refine it," she states. If, for instance, you are into film music, it is crucial to talk about it in the context of gesture, images, motion, lighting, amongst others. However, you are the person that truly knows your own voice, which is why you need to fight for it. "Every challenge that will be placed in front of you can either transform into a plant and help you grow, or will become a big block that will give you the muscles to push out of the road," Fenn believes.

As the music industry is rapidly changing, institutions are making sure to prepare its students as best as they can for the future. Although there have been new breakthrough courses offered at different universities, Nirmali feels very skeptical about adaptation coming at the cost of deletion of essential courses such as aural, harmony and theory. "I think institutions are encouraging musicians now not to hear what they feel and this is worrying me," she adds. The professor would like aural courses to transcribe bird song and her graduate course called Living in Sound develops the creation of an 'open ear' and takes on social issues such as climate change. For instance, she poses to her students that ocean densities have changed — acoustically this must affect animal communication. To Nirmali, this course is important as it challenges students to interact with and experience the world through sound, something that is often neglected.

Discussing the music industries in general, the professor is optimistic that Asia will take music forward. "I think that the growth of music is going to come from Asia, because the funding of the actual industry is huge," Nirmali elucidates. "You don't have the weight of the canon behind you like you do in Europe, and this is actually a real problem for Europe; in Asia, the canon is flowering all the time, because it is very much an Asian mentality of growth and transformation." The professor has friends in Germany and Austria who feel a resistance to creativity moving forward.

On the other hand, Nirmali also noticed that Americans are very excited about new ideas — they relish them — and are always on the cusp of shifting forward, which makes them feel like a part of an ever-moving transformational musical arrow. "Now, that arrow also never looks back and that's a problem," she smiles. If you have an arrow that goes forward, but doesn't have wings behind it, nothing propelling it, it can't go forward enough.

In Asia, the arrow is forming itself and it is very open to new ideas. "For instance, you can do Indian music in Singapore, and Chinese music, and bring out those heritages and also drive the arrow forward," the professor says. A lot of it also has to do with education — mentioning Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and the fact that they have Tristan Murail as a guest composer, Nirmali tells me that they know which composers to choose in order to drive this forward and that they are all about impetus. "They have this ambition to shape the future now for the music industry," she concludes.
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