When Joshua Rist walked into the music department’s audition room at Oregon State University in 2009, he aimed to impress the faculty with a composition combining the driving energy of rock ‘n’ roll with the emotional power of a classical symphony. “I had written this piano concerto that was exciting to me, and I thought I would just let it rip,” the 24-year-old master’s student recalls.
“I went in there and just started tearing away at the piano. She (music professor Rachelle McCabe) was literally white-knuckled. She wanted to ask me to stop but let me finish. She said, ‘you could have damaged our piano.’ I knew so little about what I was doing when I started at OSU,” he adds.
When Rist gave that performance, he already had a well-developed love of the art. He started playing piano as a child. He had performed in worship and garage bands at his church and completed an associate’s degree in music at Linn Benton Community College. During a humanitarian trip to Nigeria, he even taught children and adults on a battery-powered keyboard. His musical passion ranged widely, from Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninoff to Muse, U2 and Coldplay.
To say that Rist blossomed under the tutelage of McCabe, Steven Zielke and others in the Oregon State Department of Music is like saying that Mozart had a little talent. In the last four years, the Brownsville, Oregon, native has written five choral compositions for the OSU Chamber Choir and won the university’s Kraft Choral Composition Challenge three times. One of his songs, Invictus, based on William Ernest Henley’s poem by the same name, has been performed by choirs in Oregon, Kansas, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Texas. It was published in 2013 by Earthsongs, a Corvallis-based multicultural music publisher owned by former OSU choir director Ron Jeffers.
“It was Josh’s extraordinary intensity and sincerity that first suggested to me that there was a ‘composer-in-residence’ when he sat down at the defenseless piano and played his Invictus,” said Jeffers. “He sang it from the top of his lungs and the bottom of his heart. Certain ‘refinements’ followed, the most significant being the late addition of the heroic solo cello.”
None of this was on Rist’s radar when he auditioned. He expected to develop his skill as a choral teacher. He is completing his Master’s of Arts in Teaching this summer, but on his way to becoming an educator, he discovered a gift for composing. “I didn‘t see this happening,” he says. “I didn’t know it would come to this. You hear the music or you discover the music and write it down, and it just keeps going.”
Homeschooled, the second oldest of eight children, Rist discovered choral singing at 16 while taking courses at Linn Benton. He credits his parents’ open search for answers to life’s big questions — How do we perceive God? What does it mean to be human? — with inspiring his personal quest through music. “I’m still asking big questions, but I’m looking for answers in different ways and in different places than I used to,” he says. “Because the world has opened up to me, I hope my music can do that for others, open up the world a little bit for them.”
For Rist, composing happens in the rhythm of life. For example, the inspiration for Invictus came to him while he was painting a house in the summer of 2011. He was also taking summer classes at OSU and going through an intense period of introspection. The poem by Henley really spoke to him, he told Erin Sneller, publicist in the Department of Music. “‘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.
In a Benton Hall practice room on the OSU campus, Rist drew a line on a white board as he read Henley’s poem over and over. The line rose and fell along with his voice. With each passing, he found new meaning in the changing tempo. He played with the dynamics — shifting intensity and volume — until he found the “joyful statement that it really is. Even with this bleak backdrop at the beginning, it’s this gem of self-determination,” he says.
He finished the piece just before classes started in the fall and dropped it in Zielke’s mailbox.
Then there was a year of practice and refinement with the OSU Chamber Choir. Rist made further revisions and added a cello part. “The choir was very patient in working with me. Even in a performance, Dr. Zielke would get a twinkle in his eye and try something different,” says Rist.
The choir performed Invictus during 2012. YouTube recordings drew attention to it. Word spread. Then Florida State University conductor Kevin Fenton contacted Rist and requested permission to perform it with choirs at the university and in the Tallahassee community. Fenton took it further, to the American Choral Director’s Association National Conference in Dallas, Texas, and to multiple performances in a just-completed European tour.
Singing in the Choir
In other compositions, Rist has explored the experience of birth from the perspective of a baby (The Cave) and celebrated the duality of light and dark within the human soul (Lux Beatissima). “The big medium of choir lends itself to these questions that have been asked for centuries,” he says. “There’s a microcosm of humanity happening in the choir. Singing in a choir makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.”
And Rist has discovered that for a composer, a personal, honest voice can move others. “When I found myself in the choir, I decided this is what I’m about, what I want to write for. I want to write the music that’s in my heart, that moves me. When you sing your story, that’s a gift that a composer can offer to others.”
Every performance, he adds, reflects demanding practice sessions for the singers and the choir director. They hone the notes, play with the rhythm and sound the words. They focus on breath. “There’s no music until you fill your lungs with air and then give it to someone else,” he says. “Music is at its best when it is genuinely expressed through the performer and shared with an attentive listener. That’s where the magic happens.”
Rist is looking forward to sharing his teaching skills and his love of music in a full-time job at Hermiston High School this fall.
Read The Master of His Fate (Continued) about Josh Rist’s accomplishments in the Oregon State Department of Music.
Editor’s note: Josh Rist received several scholarships at OSU, including the Walter and Rose Kraft Choral Educators Scholarship.