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'Living composer' visits Batavia elementary school

By Daniel Crofts

You learn a lot about great dead composers in music class -- Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, etc.

The kids at John Kennedy Elementary School got a lesson that's a little different this year: learning about a living composer who doesn't live too far from Batavia!

Mark Hijleh, Ph.D, a Houghton resident and professor of Music Theory and Composition at Houghton College, has written many musical pieces in the last couple of decades. These include scores for short films made at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Some of his music is available online, including the piece that John Kennedy School's music teacher, Jeffrey Langdon, chose to share with his students.

"When [Langdon] realized that I lived close by," Hijleh said, "he asked me if I would come in and speak to the kids."

Hijleh is no stranger to the Batavia area. He conducted the Genesee Symphony Orchestra in 1997, and his wife -- also a Houghton professor -- had James Schmeider as a voice student. Schmeider had leading roles in a number of summer theater productions in Batavia.

Hijleh was kind enough to sit down with The Batavian for a Q&A session, in addition to answering students' questions.


Q: What led you to become a composer?

A: I started with music lessons when I was a kid. I was about 7 when I asked my parents if I could learn to play the piano. Then about five years later I got real serious about it. I started to hear music in my head, and I experienced strong feelings that I wanted to share [through music]. I got a lot of support as my musical interest and talent developed. My high school band director encouraged us to be creative, and my piano teacher helped me out when I started to write my own music.

Q: Did your parents ever say anything like, "Are you sure you don't want to be a doctor?"

A: Good question. Actually, I had very supportive parents. My dad was a computer programmer, but he had always wanted to be a musician. My mother, who was a teacher, was also someone who appreciated music. And I was an only child, so they could afford to support my efforts. I did think about being a lawyer, actually. But then I came to realize that we each have our own calling, our own talents and interests, and this was mine.

Q: Music programs are often prime targets when it comes to budget cuts. Based on your years of experience, do you think music has any practical value that makes it worth funding?

A: The cost question is not inconsequential. Frankly, I think that part of the concern, as far as cost goes, has to do with the question of whether or not music education is relevant to contemporary culture -- more specifically, of whether or not it effectively prepares children for life in an increasingly global society.

Up until about 30 ago, music classes focused almost exclusively on Western Classical music. And there's a lot to be said for Western Classical music, but the relevance of music education becomes questionable when it focuses on one narrow category. But I have seen music education become more progressive in recent years. Teachers and students are discovering a whole world of inspiring and powerful music from many different cultures, and they've come to understand that different forms of music can't be judged by the exact same standards.

As society has become more global, we have proven that music is a good way to help different cultures connect with each other. Every human society has music -- none that we know of don't have it. And there are a lot of things that some cultures don't have, but music isn't one of them. It's relevant to all cultures and absolutely elemental to the human spirit. By helping kids understand the importance of music, we can help them to understand the ways in which what they're listening to on their iPods -- and how they're listening to it, for that matter -- can relate to their lives and influence their decision-making.

Q: What composers have influenced you the most?

A: If I had to narrow it down I'd mention two composers. One is Olivier Messiaen, a French composer who lived from 1908-1992. He contributed greatly to the field, both in terms of the development of musical language and its connection to spirituality. The other is John Williams, the film composer. He's been heard all around the world, probably more than any other composer because of the universal presence of film. I've learned from his ability to both make his music interesting in terms of content and make sure it communicates effectively.


Q: What does it feel like to be a composer?

A: It's very exciting, but also a little scary because you're sharing inner feelings and thoughts with people and you don't know how they'll react. But it feels really good when people like your music! So it's a risk and a reward to communicate musically.

Q: What inspires you to be a composer?

A: I have music going on in my head all the time, and also in my heart, and it just has to come out and be shared.

Q: What's your favorite song that you didn't write?

A: Honestly, there are so many I just can't choose!

The Houghton Philharmonia Orchestra will play one of Hijleh's pieces, an Arabic-inspired work called "Sama'i Hijaz al Hijleh," in a 7 p.m. concert tomorrow at Attica High School.

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