Jennifer Bellor: How LSATs led to a compositional career

jennifer bellor

Our exciting After Dark concert is just around the corner! We wanted to introduce you to some of the fascinating creative voices being featured on this March 4 concert, including the winner of our inaugural call for scores, Jennifer Bellor. I asked her a few questions about how she got into music and what she’s up to these days. [Note: responses edited lightly for flow.]

Where are you from and how did you get into composing?

I am originally from Massena, NY. Before moving to Las Vegas, I lived in Rochester while working on my doctorate at The Eastman School of Music and teaching composition and theory at Nazareth College.

I was primarily a performer growing up: violin from age 3, piano at 6, French horn at 11, and then voice in high school (classical and musical theatre). When I was a senior in high school, I wrote one small piano solo, which was an amazing experience, but I was focused on performance until my junior year at Cornell.

Why is that?

Honestly, I had no idea that I could pursue composition! In my head, I thought: “OK, composing felt amazing, but all of my lessons have been in performing, and I should go to a university where I can still focus on music, but also consider applying to law school my senior year.”

I see what you mean. I also didn’t really think of composition as something you could pursue until I was already a performance major in college. So what changed things for you?

I enrolled in a composition class led by Roberto Sierra fall semester junior year. I found myself wanting to spend every minute writing, pulling all-nighters that were filled with energy and excitement as I would happily meet a composition assignment deadline.

I recall one time I was at a CU Women’s chorus retreat, and while everyone was sleeping, I stayed up all night to work on a theme-and-variation assignment on the upright piano in the basement. I know, super dorky—but I had the bug, and I was itching to write.

My voice teacher, Judy Kellock, knew of my budding interest in composing and suggested I write a small chamber opera for an honors thesis project. She knew I was also interested in applying to law school (I actually did take the LSATS and was accepted into a law program) and that I was already familiar writing for the voice. So she encouraged me to combine both interests and set a court case to music.

Seriously, a court case? That’s amazing! Which one? How did the chamber opera turn out?

Haha, the case was Bathsheba Spooner vs. the State of Massachusetts. It’s a revolutionary war case, and actually quite operatic, complete with an abusive husband, his wife Bathsheba who plots his murder, and her unsuccessful attempt to appeal her execution, due to pregnancy.

As far as how the opera turned out, well, it was basically my very first composition outside of the exercises I had been doing. I learned a lot and started to find my voice, but it was definitely not a fully mature composition.

The performance was also far from perfect, unfortunately: some players decided not to show up the day of the premiere, so I had to sing on stage with the choir, change parts here and there in order to help the singers, etcetera.

Yikes, I’m sorry to hear that. I think every composer goes through something like that at one point or the other, sort of a trial by fire. I’m glad you kept at it!

Me too!

Leaving the past behind, you now live in Las Vegas. What is it like to be a composer there?

It’s interesting! Many of my colleagues and students at UNLV are very eclectic: they’ll perform classical music concerts one day and then perform in or arrange music for shows like Celine Dion or big events like the Latin Grammys.

There aren’t a lot of new music opportunities in the area outside of the university. Nonetheless, as I live here and engage with performers in the community, I’m learning that I can make opportunities to have more live contemporary music happen in the area—it’s just a matter of doing it.

That’s a good attitude. Everything wonderful starts with someone saying, “You know what, the thing I want isn’t here, I’m going to make it happen.”

That’s right. My album “Stay,” released last summer, combines classical, jazz, opera, and indie rock all in one. I did the album release party at the Bop Shop Records store in Rochester, NY, a venue that I knew would be open to performances of this music.  One of my next goals, however, is to bring it to Las Vegas: to produce a showcase of my music with local classical and jazz musicians as well as visual artists and dancers.

Can you describe your music in a few words? (I know, an impossible task…)

I write music that blends my interests in contemporary jazz, classical, and rock styles. I grew up not only being interested in classical, but also listening to jazz, hip hop, indie rock, progressive rock, etcetera. I find that what comes out is very much related to the emotions I feel at the time in combination with those diverse influences.

What do you hope people will hear in your music?

All of my music is deeply personal, and depending upon the instrumentation or scope, is inspired by emotions, imagery, text, connections with people and so on. I hope that a listener can feel something of that. Even if the listener doesn’t know the specific inspiration, we’ve all shared similar experiences or feelings in our lives and we all can relate, whether directly or indirectly.

Can you talk a bit about the process that went into composing Moments Shared, Moments Lost?

I had to write a clarinet piece for one of the players on my album, Ivan Ivanov. It just so happened that while I was planning out the piece, I was going through some personal experiences. I was reflecting upon certain moments that will always be very special to me, but were also extremely emotional, dark, and deeply unsettling for various reasons.

I wanted to write a piece that captured those emotions, and in a way, suspend those moments in time, since I knew deep down that these moments happened, they were shared, and now they will forever be lost. Realizing that my piece was more like a requiem, I decided on an electric organ sound for the keyboard, as if I was holding a funeral for these moments that got lost or died.

I set myself the goal of writing a “song without words,” where the clarinet line sings. The approach was inspired by many of the female artists I used to listen to, such as Tori Amos. I started writing the clarinet line first, because I was focusing on the melody, and then began writing the keyboard part in order for the two lines to intertwine with each other at certain moments.

What is a piece of yours that you consider particularly representative, and why?

Chase the Stars : soprano, rapper, flute, bass clarinet, string quartet, percussion, electric guitar, electric bass, drums. I set stanzas from the poem “Ah, Why Because the Dazzling Sun” by Emily Brönte, and rapper Rasar Amani, who performs in the piece, also wrote original lyrics.

This piece combines my interests in classical, jazz, hip hop, and opera. Originally commissioned by the New York-based ensemble ShoutHouse, I recorded it with UNLV musicians for my album.

Describe what a typical day of composing looks like for you.

It changes from day to day, depending on if I’m teaching and have other academic obligations. During an academic break, I am so excited to get up in the morning, knowing I’ll have the entire day ahead of me to do my own creative work! After working out, I’ll spend 6-8 hours composing either at the piano, brainstorming with staff paper, or working at my laptop (often in a coffee shop or wine bar).

While teaching, I can’t spend as many hour composing, but as long as I can get some compositional work in done, I’m happy.

What are some of your favorite non-musical activities?

I love going to restaurants or coffee shops to just work on my laptop or meet with friends and colleagues. I also love working out, traveling, and hiking, which has more recently become an exciting new hobby. Experiencing activities that challenge me to take risks is really important to me. My most exciting risk-taking experiences thus far have been skydiving in Weedsport, NY and hiking the Devil’s Trail Bridge in Sedona, AZ.

Get your tickets today for Elevate’s After Dark concert, featuring Jennifer’s piece Moments Shared, Moments Lost.