Composer Nina C. Young’s Sonic Architectures

Composer Nina C. Young is equally at ease drawing from Renaissance motets and 21st-century technology to devise her sonic architectures.

When she was a senior at MIT, Nina C. Young ’07 took Michael (1949) and Sonja Koerner Music Composition Professor Keeril Makan’s seminar. He proved to be an illuminating instructor and supportive mentor. She was so enthused that one day she told him she wanted to be a composer. “He seemed skeptically surprised by my sudden announcement, and expressed the challenges of a composition career,” Young said, laughing. “He gave me a reality check about what it meant. But in some ways his reality check inspired me to push further.”

She certainly did: Young is now an assistant professor of composition at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the recipient of commissions from prestigious institutions around the country, with a long list of honors—including a 2015-16 Rome Prize and a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship—on her C.V. One of her interests is the relationship between space and sound. Current projects include the immersive piece “The Glow that Illuminates, the Glare that Obscures,” which explores the notion of aural architecture, and a violin concerto for Jennifer Koh with the Philadelphia Orchestra soloist, co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. 

“In this project, one of the things I’m trying to do is address the weird hierarchy that lives in the concerto format,” Young said. “The music has Jennifer Koh crossing the theoretical divide between soloist and ensemble as she plays duos and trios with subsets of the orchestra. Instead of the conductor leading the music, she has the agency to musically dialogue with everyone in the ensemble. If she’s going to play with the trumpet player, who’s all the way in the back while she’s in front, “I have to think about distance and time delays as part of the compositional fabric.”

The ever-busy composer is also writing a piece for the Boston quartet Hub New Music, with the poet and gender-studies scholar Rosie Stockton. “I’m recording her voice and looking at how her face moves with different words, and then trying to map the idea of the vocal cavity onto this instrumental group.”


Figuring Out Priorities 

But for all that, it took a little while for composing to become Young’s focus. 

Born in Nyack, a small town north of New York City, she had varied interests in high school. “I had this sort of sick love for music, and other arts as well—I did a lot of visual-art practice earlier on—and I was also scientifically and mathematically inclined,” said Young, who mentioned listening to a lot of Radiohead, the Pixies, and the Japanese electronic musician Ryoji Ikeda at the time. “I really enjoyed my calculus and physics classes, and wanted to be able to make things. So I thought that something in music tech would be a clear symbiosis.”

When Young began at MIT, it did not take long for her to find her way to the music program. Her first class was Brian Robison’s Introduction to Composition. She also signed up for music-theory curriculum with Peter Child, and took electronic-music classes with Peter Whincop and Evan Ziporyn. 

At the same time, Young was studying ocean engineering, now part of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “I could actually use some of the technical things I was learning from this coursework and put it to work in the electronic-music studio, so that was a really beautiful point of exploration,” she explained. Young went on to earn two separate B.S. degrees, one in ocean engineering and one in music. The latter would take over.


Exploring Technology, Sound, and Space

Another key meeting also happened when Nina Young was an undergraduate. “In my third year at MIT, I had gotten it into my head that I would study recording technology and become an audio engineer,” Young recalled. She contacted Tod Machover, Muriel R. Cooper Professor of Music and Media, at the MIT Media Lab, and started doing sound design for him. One of the projects she worked on was Machover’s “VinylCello,” with the cellist Matt Haimovitz and DJ Olive. “We proceeded to record it and take it on a little tour, which was super-fun,” Young said. 

Young completed advanced degrees in music composition—a Master’s from McGill University and a doctorate from Columbia University—and flourished in her chosen field. In 2015, she was one of the founders of the new-music sinfonietta Ensemble Échappé, of which she is now a co-artistic director with conductor Benjamin Grow. In 2019-20, she had a residency at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. There, she worked with their High Resolution Modular Loudspeaker Array for Wave Field Synthesis, which places virtual sound in a real space, “so you can localize them without having to sit in a sweet spot or be limited to stereo imaging,” Young explained—that technology is now at the heart of her “Glow that Illuminates” piece.


How Seeds Planted at MIT Came to Fruition

The piece “Glow that Illuminates” also bears an influence that dates back to MIT and an early-music class Young took at the Institute. “It was extremely influential to me and exposed me to a type of music I didn’t know I was going to love,” she said. A large portion of the class was dedicated to the Josquin des Prez piece “Miserere,” from the 15th century. “This particular Josquin motet, I studied and analyzed when I was 19, and I’ve been carrying in myself ever since,” she said. “It’s interesting to see how that has resonated with me for 15 years or so, and I was able to find it a home in a project.”

More generally, Young circles back to Keeril Makan’s support at a crucial time of her life. “I think the greatest mentors empower you to figure out how to become the best version of yourself,” she said. “Instead of teaching you a specific thing that is their niche, they’re teaching you how to think and how to be in the world. I remember wanting to thank Keeril, I think when I started my doctorate, for everything that he had done for me and for empowering me to feel like I could do this. And he said, ‘The only way you can thank me is to do the same thing for others in the future.’ ” 



Written by Elisabeth Vincentelli
Posted on November 9, 2021 by Arts at MIT
Tagged with: MIT Student Artists