Sebastian Franjou ’21: Louis Sudler Prize Winner

Posted on May 26, 2021 by Arts at MIT

Sebastian Franjou ’21 began studying classical guitar and music theory in his native France, but he chose the United States for his university education so that he could double major—ultimately choosing to pair music with electrical engineering and computer science “because you can make something,” he says. “Even though you can study some aspects of sound or music in other disciplines, there’s really nothing else where it’s this easy to make music with it.”

Franjou performs both classical and jazz guitar, composes, arranges, conducts, and produces music, while also working in music technology and sound engineering. In recognition of his high level of musicianship, he has been awarded the $2,500 Louis Sudler Prize, an honor presented annually to a graduating MIT senior who has demonstrated excellence or the highest standards of proficiency in music, theater, painting, sculpture, design, architecture, or film.

“It is hard to recall a single student whose presence has had a greater impact on music-making at MIT,” says MIT Lecturer Frederick Harris Jr., who nominated Franjou for the award. Harris, who directs the Institutes’ wind and jazz ensembles, describes Franjou as “a master musician, an artist with seemingly endless possibility.”

The first student in the 37-year history of MIT’s prestigious Emerson Scholarship Program to qualify for two programs of private study, Franjou studied classical guitar with Jérôme Mouffe of the New England Conservatory of Music and jazz guitar with David Newsam of the Berklee College of Music while at MIT. He also performed with several MIT musical groups, including the Festival Jazz Ensemble, the Wind Ensemble, the Musical Theatre Guild, and Love and a Sandwich.

For several years, Franjou has also served as co-director and co-conductor of the Video Game Orchestra of MIT—a traditional orchestra that plays nontraditional pieces such as student arrangements of music from video games, TV shows, and movies. (During this winter’s Independent Activities Period, the Video Game Orchestra received support from the Council for the Arts at MIT, which enabled the group to perform together virtually and led to a concert this spring.) “I think my biggest impact at MIT is probably helping the Video Game Orchestra to grow and get better established as a well-known on-campus group,” he says.

Franjou is such a consummate musician that he even managed to tie music into his Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program work in the lab of Markus Buehler, the Jerry McAfee Professor in Engineering. Using Python, Franjou explored musical representations of folded protein nanostructures, work that led to a journal paper in Nano Futures. “It ended up being a great computer science research project, even though it was in the Civil Engineering Department doing biology and music,” Franjou says.

Man with headphones around his neck
Image: 2021 Sudler Prize recipient Sebastian Franjou. Credit: Amelia Paine.
Man with headphones around his neck

In addition to Harris, members of the music faculty who supported Franjou’s nomination for the Sudler Prize included Institute Professor John Harbison; Eran Egozy, professor of the practice of music technology; and Associate Professor Patricia Tang, who co-directs Rambax, MIT’s Senegalese drumming ensemble. Tang notably praised a composition Franjou wrote for her class in global pop music: “The remix included styles such as Senegalese mbalax, which is notoriously difficult for non-Senegalese musicians to imitate; but Sebastian wrote and played guitar lines in the mbalax style that made even native Senegalese musicians’ jaws drop.”

Franjou says he began his first year at MIT by signing up for every band he could—which proved to be a bit much. Then, in the spring of sophomore year, he spent so much time practicing guitar that he injured his hand and had to take six months off. That time provided an opportunity for growth, however. “I still did a lot of music, but it was not performance anymore. It was solely composition or sound editing and things like that,” he says. “Being able to step away from your instrument and look at other instruments will allow you to write different kinds of music and think about music differently.”

Exploring new musical avenues is a passion for Franjou, who has built up an eclectic mix of credits. In his first year at MIT, for example, he designed the sound and music for RE: Charge, a videogame that went on to be named “Best Student Game” in 2018 by BostonFIG. The project was a great learning experience, Franjou says, because he had to produce sound effects as well as music, and the designers were not musicians. 

Junior year, Franjou worked on a music technology production startup, Bridge Seven Music, with peers at MIT and Berklee. “That was super interesting.” Although the startup is no longer in business, he says, “I got to see how these people work in pop music, which I feel I knew almost nothing about.” Franjou was also named a Burchard Scholar that year, an honor awarded to MIT students who have demonstrated excellence in some aspect of the humanities, arts, or social sciences.

Now Franjou is wrapping up his undergraduate degree, and he says he plans to continue his musical education at MIT by pursuing an MEng in music technology, perhaps working on new ways to model instruments on the computer. “There are a lot of possibilities that I’m leaving open to myself,” he says. “But whatever I make, I think I’ll be happiest if it makes sound or music.”


Written by Kathryn O’Neill

The Council for the Arts at MIT presents several awards annually to MIT students who have demonstrated excellence in the arts.