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IN THIS ISSUE

Shawn Felton shares love of music as composer, performer and announcer

Shawn Felton
Rebecca Arrington
Shawn Felton

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

Shawn Felton entered U.Va. in 1991 as an undergraduate student planning to major in pre-med. But after he won a scholarship that allowed him to study privately with a music department faculty member, he changed his tune.

"I was taken by a storm," he said. "I'd only had an introduction to [classical] music before then." Felton, a senior Web developer in the University Webmaster office, proceeded to earn a master's degree in music, with an emphasis on composition, at U.Va. in 1999. He continues to write music, some of it performed at local churches; serves as a classical and gospel announcer at WTJU; and is contemplating pursuing a Ph.D. in music and a career teaching it.

He first became exposed to classical music during his middle and high school years in Texas and Rhode Island, when he played the clarinet in concert bands and "got a little taste of the great composers," he said. During high school, he took music lessons at a local community college and was selected annually as a top finishing clarinetist in the Rhode Island All-State Band.

While an undergraduate here, Felton studied clarinet and played in the University Wind Ensemble.

In graduate school, he discovered his affinity for composition. "My experience as a graduate music student here was incredible," he said, crediting music professors Alicyn Warren and department chair Judith Shatin for encouraging him to experiment.

"I like to write music about things that feel familiar to me, about the senses and feelings and nostalgia for the past, but I also like ... to step outside who I am and create new things," said Felton, who writes for voice, piano, strings and wind instruments.

"The thing I've discovered about composition is that it's really an exploration of the self. It's about defining a goal and working toward it, while at the same time realizing that it might be unattainable. But the most important thing is the process, not the goal.

"It's bigger than you think it is, and you'll never know exactly how big it is, he said. "I feel that way about composition and music."

Felton noted similarities between his work at U.Va. and his avocation. "Like composition, Web developing is a very creative process [in which] you are always in search of something, and along the way you discover things that you didn't expect."

He added that both activities "are ultimately about communication, and they're both fluid -- every Web site is a performance, he said. "It's never fixed, in that you can go back and make changes based on people's responses to it."

Felton cites a variety of influences on his composition, such as the African-American religious music he grew up with and a handful of composers, including David Diamond, Gerald Finzi and Samuel Barber, all of whom write very melodically, he said.

"The music that I really love is very accessible. That's the kind of music I want to write."

Felton admires the tonality and lyricism in these composers' work. Music that highlights the relationships among different keys has strong tonality; as in folk music, "the tonal elements return often and provide a sense of stability," he said.

Lyrical music is that which "sings itself " or has the quality of singing, he said.

"My goal is to investigate more closely what [Finzi and Diamond] are doing not to try to replicate them, but to try to create new things using their distinct methods," he said.

African-American church music has also been important to him. "That voice is ever present in my compositions," said Felton, who was the church pianist and organist at several Methodist and Baptist churches as a teenager.

Since 1995, he has been singing in the choir at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church-Unitarian Universalist. That group will premier Felton's short work about winter based on piano improvisations Dec. 10 at 9:30 and 11:15 a.m.

Felton, who has written commissioned works for other churches in Charlottesville, also shares his love of music with the community by serving as an announcer at WTJU. He's been hosting a three-hour classical show one morning a week under a pseudonym, and a one-hour gospel show on Sundays since 1995.

"People call to say they like the music, and I'm always surprised by what makes the phone ring. It's never the pieces that I would expect, the major works; it's the unknown composers," he said. "It makes me feel like I'm connecting with the listeners."

Score and Sound File Samples of Recent Music Compositions


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