An interview with Nathan Marsh, SFU’s own superstar composer.


Nathan Marsh, an SFU graduate with a BFA Music Major, has been selected as the 2016 New Voices Composer in Residence through Spectrum Music.

Spectrum Music, a group of canadian composers, focuses primarily on mixing classical and jazz genres. Over the next few months, Marsh will mentor with well-known professionals from his field and create a piece that will be highlighted in a concert this summer.

The Peak sat down with Nathan to talk about his journey from being a student to a young composer.

The Peak: What prompted your interest in music and composing?

Nathan: I always had an interest in music, but for the longest time it was just a hobby on the side. When I first [started at] SFU in 2010, I was actually planning to pursue a career in business. I took a few economics courses, but was not too excited about them. Around that time, I decided to take a music theory course for extra credit, and I liked it so much that I guess I never stopped.

Going into composing was challenging, especially since music theory and composition were not my strongest points; but the more courses I took, the more I wanted to produce. I realized that I had a lot of ideas, and I enjoyed creating, starting from the concept and building it into a music piece.

P: Why did you decide to stay at SFU for your BFA in Music? 

N: I believe I got very lucky with the music program. When I first entered SFU, Woodward’s campus and the programs there were fairly new, so I didn’t have to do an entrance exam. This enabled me to actually pursue music. I think if I applied at another school with the knowledge and skills that I had at the time, I wouldn’t have got in, nor would I have a music degree now.

P: What did you enjoy the most throughout the music program?

N: One of the best aspects of my program was having opportunities to collaborate with other members of the School of Contemporary Arts. Throughout my studies, I did music for student films, dance productions, visual arts installations. It was interesting to learn to work together with artists from other disciplines, since we didn’t really speak the same artistic language. I mean, I see everything from the music perspective, while in dance, they speak dance language. I think we learned a lot through our collaborations.

P: What was the journey to becoming 2016 New Voices Composer in Residence?

N: I was getting close to graduation and looking for a reason to continue writing music, researching different organizations for composing opportunities. More often than not, organizations wanted well-known composers for different projects and shows, so it was challenging — but I was really eager.

Eventually, I found a program through Spectrum Music in Toronto with a category for emerging composers. I submitted my application, and was one of the five composers chosen to attend music workshops in Toronto, where we went over music composition and techniques, and talked about our artistic statement and goals. Upon the completion of the workshops, I was chosen for the project. I will have a chance to perform at the concert on June 4, which I am excited and grateful for.

The concert is called the Tower of Babel and is based on the Biblical story: different religions got together to build a tower up to God, but God knocked it down, dividing people though language barrier. For the concert, I’d like to write one coherent piece, but have the software randomly alter the signals from the instruments, creating disruptions that I am not in control of — the same way God created disruptions for the builders of the tower. It’s an ambitious project, but I hope to see it live.

P: Can you share a bit of your artistic vision with us?

N: I like to highlight the conceptual intention behind my music. I think that in the music industry, there is still a lot of emphasis creating something that is aesthetically-pleasant, and I’m interested in challenging that. Of course, I don’t want my music to sound bad, but the notions of good and bad are also very subjective. My goal is to lessen the emphasis on how the music sounds and focus more on why it sounds that way, and how the space of life performance is used as an element for the composition itself. In the pieces that I compose, I’d like the music content and the message to work together, impacting and engaging the audiences.

P: Where do you see yourself in the next 5–10 years?

N: That’s a difficult part about music and art: there are a lot of opportunities, but it is also very competitive. For now, I’ve been looking into graduate programs: part of me thinks I could really use more guidance, and the idea of continuing education is intriguing to me.

P: Any advice you would give to the young musicians out there? 

N: I think the most important point is: it is possible.

If you love [music], chances are you will find a way to be good at it [so] just go into it! Believe in yourself and don’t listen to other people unless they’re encouraging you.