The Master of His Fate (continued)
Rist, 24, of Corvallis, a graduate student in music education, completed his bachelor’s degree in music in 2012, and recently completed his student teaching internship at Corvallis High School. He will complete the Master of Arts in Teaching and the requirements for a State of Oregon Teaching License this summer. Well on his way to achieving his goals of becoming a high school choral director and composer, Rist’s route to get to this point wasn’t exactly direct, or traditional.
The second oldest of eight children, Rist was home schooled in Brownsville, Ore. He started playing piano at the age of seven and continued taking lessons while growing up. He didn’t discover a love for choir, however, until the age of 16, when he began taking classes at Linn-Benton Community College and walked into a choir class directed by Hal Eastburn. Rist describes that experience as “transformative,” and says it stuck with him after he completed the high school equivalency program there. He spent a year working a day job in construction and trying succeed as a rock musician at night. After attending a small Christian college for another year, Rist spent a summer in Nigeria, where he taught music on a little, battery-powered keyboard to youth and adults. Through this experience, Rist realized that he loved this work, but needed more skills to be successful. He returned to school at Linn-Benton and completed the associate’s degree in 2009, then transferred to OSU to study choral music education.
At OSU, Rist says, he has been given the tools and opportunities to develop into a professional musician.
“Rachelle McCabe, OSU’s director of piano studies, really changed my life,” Rist says. “She helped me grow so much as a pianist and as a musician. You’ll notice that piano is featured prominently in all of my compositions. There are moments when they are more like a piano concerto with choir. I have such a passion for piano,” he said.
While Rist had toyed with composing rock music and some piano ballads, his impetus for composing choral music came with Oregon State’s Kraft Choral Composition Challenge in 2010. This annual contest offers a $500 cash prize and a performance of the winning piece by the OSU Chamber Choir at its end of the year concert. Rist says he drew inspiration from Rachmaninoff, British and Indie rock groups, and contemporary choral composer Eric Whitacre. Combining biblical texts and some of his own words, Rist says he “mashed it all together” to compose “Psalm of Creation,” which won the Kraft challenge that year.
“Even though that piece seems like a really immature first-going to me now, that process was so validating. I realized I could write, and that people would take my music seriously here at OSU,” Rist said.
Rist has gone on to win the Kraft competition two more times. In 2011, he won with “Psalm of Life,” which set text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to music. The OSU Chamber Choir took the song on tour to China as an encore piece, and it was so well received at the first concert, they ended up adding it to their repertoire for the rest of the tour.
“That was really a breakthrough moment. Sometimes I think about that and it seems surreal. What a great opportunity,” Rist said.
His latest composition, “Lux Beatissima” won the 2013 Kraft competition. It will be premiered at the President’s Concert on June 8 in Corvallis.
“Invictus” was not written specifically for a competition, but came to Rist in the summer while he was taking summer classes, working as a housepainter and experiencing a time of spiritual introspection and discovery.
“The poem, by William Ernest Henley, really spoke to me. ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’ It puts the onus of responsibility for your life on you. That’s very empowering and very humbling to me,” Rist said.
Wanting to continue his composing streak, Rist worked on the piece throughout the summer, thinking about it while painting and going in to Benton Hall during his time off to compose at the piano and get it down on paper.
“After reading through the text and thinking about it, I made a drawing on a white board in Benton Hall, detailing where I wanted the music to go up, dynamically, and where I wanted it to go down. There was my musical graph – the beginning of the composition. It reminded me of the hills and valleys around Corvallis, with Mary’s Peak,” he said. “That’s what I started with.”
Rist spent the end of the summer refining the composition, and dropped it into choral studies director Steven Zielke’s mailbox in Benton Hall just before school began in the fall. It was well received.
“(Dr. Zielke) and (Nicola Nine Zielke) are really co-creaters of this piece. They have encouraged and given me so much feedback. (Dr. Zielke) has been a generous and brave conductor with it. The OSU Chamber Choir performed ‘Invictus’ throughout the year. Through that I have learned that the nature of choral composition is to be generous with the performers. They should be able to make it their own. Whatever the choir is feeling on the night of the performance they should be able to communicate. Each performance should be a unique experience. I even took out some of the dynamic markings to give the choirs more freedom to interpret the work,” Rist said.
One of the OSU performances was posted on YouTube, where it was seen by Florida State University choral director, Kevin Fenton. He contacted Rist, saying he’d like to perform the piece with both his university choir and his semi-professional community choir, the Festival Singers of Florida. That exposure, Rist said was invaluable. In February, Fenton’s Florida State University Singers performed ”Invictus” at the American Choral Director’s Association National Conference in Dallas, Texas. They plan to perform it on their upcoming tour through Europe. Fenton also took it with him when he was conducting all-state honor choirs in North Carolina and Virginia. From these performances, “Invictus” was exposed to more choral directors and choirs than Rist could monitor.
“This was really helpful in getting the piece published. I started seeing performances of Invictus on You Tube, that I didn’t even know about,” he said.
Eventually Rist got an email from Ron Jeffers, owner of Earthsongs Music, and a former director of choirs at Oregon State, saying “Invictus” had been approved for publishing. Jeffers was aware of Rist’s work from attending OSU choral concerts, and the two had had several conversations about Rist’s other compositions, but Jeffers never let on that he was considering publishing “Invictus.”
“I was completely surprised. It’s big. Earthsongs has a huge reputation as an international publishing company. It’s a real honor,” Rist said.
So, what comes next? Where does Josh Rist see himself in five years? He says he hopes to continue to find inspiration to compose choral music but first he wants to teach.
“Composing has always been an interruption of normal life,” he said.
After graduating, Rist says he hopes to start a “normal life” as a choral director at a high school, preferably, in Oregon.
-- Erin Sneller