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Overture to harmony

A young composer finds his rhythm in the world of modern music

Elliot Butler Photo by Alex Garcia / Genesis

Overture to harmony
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ELLIOT BUTLER LEANED BACK in his seat in the Matthiessen Memorial Auditorium in LaSalle, Ill., and took in the scene. Flutes, oboes, French horns, and trombones gleamed under the spotlights, and the sound of an Austrian opera overture—from Emil Von Reznicek’s Donna Diana—bounced off the walls.

“Wow,” the lanky high schooler thought. “I’d love to be able to do that someday.”

He already knew what it was like to play as part of the strings section, and he wasn’t referring to conducting. Instead, Butler dreamed of composing. On a grand, orchestral scale.

Since then, Butler, now 26, has put in the leg work to make that dream a reality. He pursued composition degrees—two of them—and learned all about the ­blending tone of bassoons, the importance of well-timed timpani strikes, the dreaminess of woodwind harmonies, the manipulation of sound and silence. And last fall, he accomplished the goal common to composers in any time period, Baroque or Biden-era. An orchestra played his work, and the public listened.

As far as niche fields go, writing musical scores for a hundred instrumentalists is akin to prosthetic engineering and airplane repo services. It’s distinctive in the music world, too. At January’s 2024 Grammy Awards, golden gramophone statuettes honored musicians in 98 categories. Only one went to someone involved in the composition of contemporary classical music.

And Butler has chosen to narrow his scope even further. He wants to write music that reflects his Biblical worldview. It’s especially countercultural in an age that elevates discordant melodies and prioritizes representation over composition. Butler’s desire to write music that pleases the ear and soul could, ironically, make it harder for him to find an audience.

Elliot Butler sits in a concert hall on the campus of Illinois State University in Normal, Ill.

Elliot Butler sits in a concert hall on the campus of Illinois State University in Normal, Ill. Photo by Alex Garcia/Genesis

BUTLER GREW UP IN AN UNUSUAL HOME—a Civil War–era Presbyterian church in Arlington, Ill. His parents, both former music majors at Moody Bible Institute, painstakingly remodeled the historic structure. The sound of family hymn sings often resonated among its rafters, with the three Butler children holding their own on several instruments. Elliot was an on-and-off-again piano lesson taker before he fell for the cello. Cellists were in demand in the Illinois Valley Youth Orchestra, and he had barely learned all his scales before the organization recruited him for performances. Bent over a music stand, seated in a sea of instrumentalists dressed in black, Butler learned he liked playing in large group settings, especially when they pulled out sheet music from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack.

Some 400 youth orchestras operate in America. For Butler, a homeschooler grounded in a tiny community with miles of cornfields in every direction, participation in youth orchestra was a lifeline to musical education and exposure. His organization also enjoyed an alliance with the Illinois Valley Symphony Orchestra. That meant “nights at the symphony” were common on his calendar.

At each performance, Butler felt a pull. “I’d hear a certain combination of instruments and want to emulate it as a composer, not just as a player. I’d go home and try to do something similar.”

While other boys his age spent their free time gaming on their computers, Butler used his for composing. Special software allowed him to hear different musical parts and instruments, and he found a free online program, MuseScore, that enabled him to write full orchestral compositions by the age of 16. An electronic keyboard came in handy, too, as he plucked out melodies. Then in 2015, on a whim, he entered his work in the National Young Composers Challenge, a competition offering monetary awards and professional performances for winning submissions. Judges named Butler a finalist.

He says he viewed that honor as a sort of confirmation of his aspirations. His parents didn’t balk when he later announced his desire to study music theory and composition at Western Illinois University. How could they? Paul Butler (executive producer of WORLD Radio) and his wife Pamela had passed down their love of music like a set of family silver. But during those school years, their musically devoted son faced a new challenge.

Photo by Alex Garcia/Genesis

ORCHESTRAS EVERYWHERE HAD BIG PLANS to celebrate 250 years of Beethoven in 2020. In Boston, nine of his symphonies would start the season. In New York, Carnegie Hall planned to allot nearly a fifth of its season’s repertoire to his works. But then the pandemic hit, canceling all those events. Leigh Wilson, an opinion columnist at Harvard, called it “the music world’s nightmare: a Beethoven-less Beethoven anniversary.”

Beethoven, however, weathered COVID much better than many orchestras did. Soft ticket sales were a problem before the global shutdown, and the pandemic simply accelerated the slump. Trimmed grants and loans haven’t helped either. But another factor that could be affecting concert hall attendance? A dislike of modern classical music.

Modern orchestral composition is sometimes characterized by its use of unconventional instruments, harmonies, and techniques. “Dissonance” is its byword. While consonant music is melodious and naturally pleasing to the ear, dissonant music is jarring, with harmonies that clash against one another. It’s an unsettling sound for many concertgoers.

While other boys his age spent their free time gaming on their computers, Butler used his for composing.

But some undergraduate and graduate composition programs push students in that “modern” direction. Elliot Butler says he experienced the tug of war. “My professors said I needed to listen to that kind of music. I needed to write like that. But I feel like music is designed to sound good to people. So why go against that?”

Butler wasn’t attracted to music that sounded “angry,” music that was supposed to represent the darker sides of humanity. “That doesn’t mean all the modern academic styles are objectively bad, they’re just not my taste,” he clarifies. Instead, Butler prefers to emulate the harmonies of writers like Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote “SDG,” which stands for Soli Deo gloria, “glory to God alone,” at the bottom of all his compositions.

The push toward “modern” music isn’t the only challenge Butler may face. Jeff Leigh is an acclaimed violinist who taught composition at Wheaton College. He believes his faith hasn’t negatively affected his viability as a composer, but in the current context there are things that discourage his participation. “The arts world right now is not just the arts. It’s arts and culture. People are looking to underrepresented groups to find their voice, and I’m a Caucasian male in my 40s.”

Photo by Alex Garcia/Genesis

A publication from the American Composers Forum indicates he’s right. Some opportunities listed were open only to black and Hispanic applicants. Another offered commissions worth more than $50,000 dollars. Its photo advertisement featured four female composers and one male. He wasn’t white.

For his part, Butler doesn’t have an issue with orchestras highlighting underrepresented voices. “I think it’s cool to hear how different lived experiences and cultural expressions end up getting infused into music.”

But he also understands composition is rarely a primary job. His day job, for now, is insurance. He has hopes of teaching at some point in the future. Another route open to composers is the film or commercial music industry. That can be hard on family life, though, because of the pressure. Composers must produce a lot of material in a short amount of time.

ARTISTS WHO ARE COMPELLED to compose will compose, even though most have little hope of seeing their work brought to life by a full orchestra. But last year Butler learned the Illinois Valley Symphony Orchestra had issued a call for scores. The group wanted to feature a piece by a local composer during its 2023-24 season. Butler got to work and secured the spot. On Nov. 6, “An Overture to Harmony” premiered at the Matthiessen Memorial Auditorium in LaSalle. Conductor Daniel Sommerville called the piece “engaging, fresh, and innovative.” He described Butler as “confident, open to suggestions but firm in his convictions.”

For Butler, the experience wasn’t just validating. It was nostalgic. “The setting was the same place where I played all of my concerts with the youth orchestra. In fact, it was almost nine years to the day since my very first concert in that same auditorium.”

Photo by Alex Garcia/Genesis

He listened with apprehension during the 11-minute performance, always thinking ahead in the music. “I knew the spots that could go wrong, like a place where I’d written a particularly difficult part for an instrument. So I was just bracing myself.”

But the notes rang out as he’d written them. Butler’s concluding movement came and went, and the sound of his loved-and-labored-over music faded into silence. As applause erupted, he waited in the wings. The conductor bowed, followed by several musicians and the rest of the orchestra. Then it was Butler’s turn. He took the stage steps two at a time. It was, perhaps, the first time he could view his accomplishment objectively. His hopes had come full circle in a fitting coda. “To hear my work played by that group meant more to me than it would have if any other orchestra performed it.”

Kim Henderson

Kim is a World Journalism Institute graduate and senior writer for WORLD. During her career as a homeschool mom, she worked as a freelance writer. Kim resides in Mississippi with her family.



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