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Classical composers write tunes fit for cowboy crowd

Moores students create Houston Rodeo and Livestock Show soundtrack

UH Students composers - Photo by Nick De La Torre, Houston Chronicle

Photo by: Nick De La Torre, Houston Chronicle staff
Composers were, from left, Mark Buller, Desmond Ikegwuonu,Samuel Hunter and
Daniel Webbon, all graduate students at the Moores School of Music.

Student composers at the Moores School of Music are accustomed to creating complex original compositions for classical concertgoers. Four Moores students, however, strayed from their classical roots recently to delve deeply into traditional country and Western Music.

Houston Grand Opera Community Outreach (HGOCo) commissioned the western-themed works for performance during the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which bills itself as “the world’s largest livestock show and richest regular-season rodeo.”

“I never had written anything in a pop style, so it was interesting,” said doctoral candidate Mark Buller, one of the four student composers. “It also was a little easier, since we dealt with normal chords and a more simple harmonic language. But, all of us had to do some research by listening to music from artists like Hank Williams and others.”

Buller and his fellow composers – master of fine arts students Samuel Hunter, Desmond Ikegwuonu and Daniel Webbon – not only had to adjust their talents to new song forms, but also explored how to make them appealing to rodeo audiences.

“I had to figure out how to tug on people’s heartstrings,” Hunter said. “That’s the key to popular music. It’s about connecting to your audience in a way that is visceral and meaningful.”

The lyrics for the songs are based on texts written by Andrea White, novelist and former First Lady of Houston, and Kelly Finn, a Houston Grand Opera staff member.

The songs were performed live during Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR) events, and previewed during a public recital on Feb. 12 at the Moores Opera House presented by HGOCo and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

The composers didn’t have to sing their cowboy tunes. That task was handled by Houston Grand Opera company members Sarah Parnicky (soprano) and Wesley Landry (baritone), with musical accompaniment from noted Houston country musician Miss Leslie Sloan and other local players.

The project was truly a group effort as the composers would gather with guitars, share their songs with each other and offer feedback and suggestions. Rob Smith, associate professor of composition in the Moores School, oversaw the process.

“With these rodeo songs, we had to balance elements of the rodeo with certain themes and characters from the texts,” Hunter said. “At the same time, it was important to make sure people could relate to these songs.”

Use the links below to hear some of the original songs.

- By Mike Emery