ROCO recently announced its 2020-2021 season, and as part of its look to the upcoming year, it is welcoming a special guest to take part in the organization's long standing tradition of introducing new works created by living artists. In the composer-in-residence role, Alyssa Morris will add to the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra's landmark premieres, which at current count are more than 100 and show no sign of stopping.
Morris will write a triptych of pieces showcasing the ensemble‘s flexible model — including a work for wind sextet, solo instrument, and a piece for chamber orchestra inspired by the colorful children’s book Musicians of the Sun, based upon an Aztec tale.
"I am very excited to write the 'Musicians of the Sun' piece because each soloist can depict the musicians, and they can play percussive instruments as well because the illustrations in the book lend to that. The depiction of that can lead to showing the world devoid of color and then having color. It will be a real feat and a moving concept," she said.
Another piece of the triptych is inspired by her residence in Kansas.
"The concept is a region right near Manhattan, Kansas. The land is kind of untouched because it’s a biological research area. What they do is try to preserve it as close as they can to its natural form. That also involves some things like burning the tall grass each year, which is a spectacle to behold. In that burning, it creates new growth and life," she added. "Ever since I spent time in the prairie area, I though it would be neat to write a piece about the seasons of the prairies...The burning and the renewal afterward, and a lot of the parallels it can entail between seasons and life."
"Another piece is an oboe and percussion piece. I really like the shiny qualities of metal percussion and the variety of ways to play the metal percussion. It has a gorgeous shine to it," Morris said. "Because ROCO's season theme is color and light, I wanted to depict light with this piece. I was drawn to the biblical quote 'let your light shine.'"
As an acclaimed performer in woodwind circles, it's interesting to find out the oboe could have been the instrument she nearly did not study.
"By the time, I was at the end of high school, I knew I wanted a degree and career in music, but I didn’t know if I would go into piano, oboe or composition. I auditioned on both oboe and piano and received a scholarship for oboe but was on the waiting list for piano, and that made the decision so to speak. I went into oboe, but I am lucky that I have lots of opportunity to still play piano. I still play masterclasses and recitals, and I took all the composition classes I could. I took enough classes to have the credit hours to double major in composition, if they would have let me," she said.
She went on to complete a bachelor's and master's degree in Oboe Performance from Brigham Young University and a doctorate from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She currently works as a professor of oboe and music theory at Kansas State University.
"It’s a different way to go about as a composer, but in a way, it was right for me. A university position allows for flexibility with research, so the research side of what I do can be all [focused on] composition. I feel like when I’m able to perform my own composition or write for others, I’m realizing there is this amazing flexibility in this side of the job, and I can do what I want to do with my music," she said.
Over the years, she's been busy composing and publishing, and in recent history, it landed her on ROCO's radar.
ROCO's season 13 Unchambered series opened with “Nik-NAK,” in which the ROCO Wind Trio performed a Morris original. Thanks to ROCO's performance archives, Morris' previous works (along with multitudes of others) are available for listeners.
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"[ROCO Founder Alecia Lawyer] liked that the players initials spelled N-A-K, and so she thought it would be fun to do something along the lines of Nik-NAK. She thought if I could run with that, it would be amazing. I though about how to depict knickknacks in music. I tried to depict the materials they were made of, so one movement was based on metallic sounds, another was based on wood sounds, and another is based on glass sounds," she described. "Each is the instrumentalists also playing a little bit of percussion in their parts. For example, the oboist plays the wood block that is jimmied onto a bass drub peddle, so you can play both instruments at the same time. There was some bottle blowing in the glass movement. For metal, there were some brush drum stick sounds and triangle sounds, and it was a lot of fun."
Lawyer doubles down with her support for Morris' upcoming position with the group.
She says, "As a fellow oboist, we rule the world. She’s a delightful composer, and I couldn’t imagine a better color and light representative."
For information about ROCO's upcoming season, visit ROCO.org or call 713-665-2700. Season tickets range from $90 to $350, with discounts for seniors and students.