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Iris Orchestra Student Composer Competition

Tianxiang “Kevin” Yu

“Like Iris Orchestra, my mission as a musician is to serve the people by preserving precious cultures and bringing the world closer to understanding each other.” – Yu

Tianxiang “Kevin” Yu, college freshman at Vanderbilt University, has been named the winner of Iris Orchestra’s inaugural Collegiate Composer Competition. The first annual Iris Collegiate Composer Competition was open to all college students connected to the Mid-South. Applicants were asked to submit between two and four original compositions representing their style and compositional skill. Submissions were assessed in two rounds, and contestants were evaluated on their knowledge and expertise in writing for string instruments and imaginative approach to conceptualizing the commissioned work. The prize for winning the competition included a $500 cash award to compose an original work for string trio to be performed and recorded by Iris musicians.

Details for the premiere of Kevin Yu’s piece coming!

Iris Orchestra sat down with Kevin to discuss his musical journey. 

Iris: What first brought you to music?
Yu: As a piano student since I was five or six, I take pride in my childhood that a big part of it is music. Although I had been singing all the time, I never thought of studying music professionally before my junior year of high school. Many thanks to my piano teacher Ms. Nie Cheng, who taught me piano and music theory for years, and encouraged me to explore my interest in many genres of music, I became one of the advanced music students and pop band players by the time of high school. In my school, we formed classical, pop, and jazz ensembles, but what really inspired me was an experience in school musical production. It was a pretty harsh time for me when I was stuck in between academic, social, and mental pressure, and I was also expected to make decisions on college application. Nevertheless even in such a time, hope and happiness came to me, as I performed in school production that year, the musical “The Addams Family.”

Through that experience, I found myself allowed to become the true me, when music was around. Whenever I walk into the rehearsal hall every afternoon, all the tension and stress just disappear, and I found happiness whenever I’m playing music. I never felt tired even when we rehearsed for hours every day after school for two weeks in a row. Instead, I even feel like I was replenished with energy after rehearsal. Since then, I’m convinced that I’m born to make music.

In that experience, I especially like the social aspect of music-making. My happiest memories of music are all about engaging in music collectively and working together towards the same goal and building bonds and friendship in this process. Thus, I particularly prefer live music over electronically produced music, since I found collective engagement and shared spirits in live performances that aren’t all that perfect.

Iris: When did you start composing?
Yu: Widely speaking, I started my creative adventure long before the awareness that I wanted to study composition. As a typical Asian kid who started piano early in my childhood, I’m atypical in that I truly love music all the time. I’ve always liked singing, not just pop songs, but also improvised melodies. One of my favorite childhood leisure was singing melodies that popped out of my mind all the time.

Later as a band boy, I started song writing and got familiar with a little of music production in middle school. I produced songs, posted them on the internet and craved recognition. That was the time when I finally realized I wanted to write music, so I started professional trainings in Composition in my junior year, and was honored to be admitted as a Music Composition major at Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music.

Iris: Do you draw inspiration from other famous composers/works? If so, who?
Yu: As a music student interested in many kinds of arts, I draw inspiration from a variety of music genres from time to time. Despite the fact that I’m currently studying Contemporary Concert Music, I’m particularly interested in Jazz, Blues, and Global Music: the music of the people, the music of humanity.

The inspiration for my works could come from a song by Bob Dylan; it could be a book from Japanese literature; or it could also be the music accompaniment of Chinese drama. I understand music as a reflection of human spirit, and the most fascinating part of Global Music is that the music of a people reflects the characteristics, the cultures, the shared memories, and the common beliefs of that people. Like Iris Orchestra, my mission as a musician is to serve the people by preserving precious cultures and bringing the world closer to understanding each other.

While only talking about concert music composers, my favorites are also composers who borrow from and focus the music of the people, such as John Cage, John Adams, Bela Bartok, Qigang Chen etc. I have very great respect for the artists who create art and use art to present the splendors of humanity.

Iris: Where do you see yourself going to pursue your career after college?
Yu: While I am highly concerned with the social value of music, I also have concerns towards a future career as a composer for Contemporary Concert Music due to its relatively small audience and fixed performing scenarios which limit its power to reach and influence people. A possible option I have in mind is, after graduate school, starting organizations and businesses producing and promoting music of the people. This way I believe I’m using my knowledge of music to create a positive social impact.

Iris: In your own words, what does winning this composer competition mean to you?
Yu: To me, winning this competition is both an honor and a surprise, an extremely encouraging start in my career. It is and will always be one of the most important successes in my life that shows recognition to my ideas and efforts, and also provides me with opportunities and resources to travel further down the road of my choice. It’s my pleasure to meet all of you who recognize my works and my ideas. I owe you lots of thanks.

Check out more information about Iris Orchestra’s Student Composer Competition by reading the guidelines and prize details below.


Composer Competition Eligibility & Guidelines

  •  Open to undergraduate and graduate level students
  • Applicants must be actively enrolled in a college or university at the time of submission and meet one of the following criteria:
    1. Be an active student at a college or university located in Tennessee, Mississippi, or Arkansas OR
    2. Be an active student attending a college or university outside of the Tennessee/Mississippi/Arkansas area, but who is a permanent resident of one of those three states (proof of residency required)
  • Each applicant should submit 2 to 4 original works composed within the last two years representative of their composition skill and style
    1. Scores should be submitted as PDFs and include mp3 recordings if available
  • Each applicant must submit 1 to 2 references who can speak to the applicant’s compositional experience
  • Plagiarism of copyrighted material is illegal. It is the responsibility of the composer to assure that music submitted is all original material.

The winner will be commissioned to compose an original work for string trio and receive:

  • A $500 award
  • Consultations with Iris musicians and administration during preparation of the commissioned work
  • Professional quality audio recording of their commissioned work
  • A minimum of 1 public performance during the 2020/2021 season and 1 public performance during the 2021/2022 season of the commissioned work, (COVID-19 restrictions pending)
  • Public recognition of award through Iris website, social media, and press release

Questions? Contact Rebecca Arendt at