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From politics to penguins, award-winning student composer tells stories through music

By Catherine Monson '12
March 12, 2012

Egemen Kesikli '12 didn’t start reading music until he was 16, but he was a composer long before that. The young Turk remembers crafting simple tunes at a very young age without any knowledge of the intricacies and techniques of expressing music on a page.

That talent, along with hard work and dedication, has earned Kesikli several composition awards — including, most recently, being named this year’s Minnesota Collegiate Composer of the Year.

Egemen Kesikli '12 conducts his piece, The Emperor, during the March 11 St. Olaf Band concert. Watch him conduct and listen to what Kesikli calls "one of the most musically interesting pieces I've written" via the streaming link, below.

This honor was bestowed by the Minnesota Music Educators Association, which holds a composition contest each year for collegiate-level students across the state. Having placed in several different categories, Kesikli's Composer of the Year award reflects his strong work overall in the contest. He received first place in the chamber music and choir categories and second place in the instrumental solo category. Past awards for Kesikli include winning the Belvedere Chamber Music Festival Composition Contest and the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra composition contest in 2011.

"Egemen came to St. Olaf with strong compositional skills and a great desire to learn," says Professor of Music and Composition Timothy Mahr '78. "He has coupled this potential over the last three and a half years with an impassioned curiosity and strong work ethic. We're very proud of him and his accomplishments."  

Although Kesikli recognizes how much skill and dedication it takes to compose a major work, he still believes that anyone can be a composer. "It doesn't take great skill to write a simple tune," he says, "but learning the style and techniques involved in composing allows you to express yourself in a much more sophisticated way." Conducting is his second primary interest, Kesikli says, because it gives him the freedom to express what's on the page — a special luxury when the music is his own.

Social music
And what's on the page can be much more complex than it sounds. Kesikli's music tries to "embrace music of different cultures that are stylistically contrasting yet complementary," particularly from the Western and Middle Eastern regions, he says. It often reflects his keen interest in world affairs, especially those affecting his native home in Turkey. For example, one of his compositions, Midnight in Uskudar, was based on a vivid memory of being confronted by a religious extremist while walking the streets of Istanbul — a disquieting experience that led him to reflect on fundamentalism and moral intolerance in Turkey. Kesikli eventually translated this social issue into a programmatic piece for two clarinets and piano.

This opportunity to engage in political science courses while majoring in music theory and composition has been one of the most valuable things about his time at St. Olaf, Kesikli says. "The St. Olaf Music Department has the academic intensity of a conservatory, but what's unique is that you're required to take many other classes that are not necessarily related to your major. St. Olaf teaches you to be open-minded, which has helped me grow musically."

Egemen Kesikli

In whatever free time his studies allow him, Kesikli enjoys performing with Chapel Choir and the Limestones (a seven-voice male a cappella group), and volunteering as assistant conductor of Viking Chorus. He looks forward to pursuing a master's degree in composition next fall, focusing more on contemporary music.

On March 11, Kesikli had the chance to conduct the premier performance of his composition The Emperor by the St. Olaf Band (see link below). The visually expressive piece follows the life of a penguin through its varied activities: walking, swimming, diving, lovemaking, dancing, and even singing. As lighthearted as this sounds, Kesikli describes the music as "quite serious, and one of the most musically interesting pieces I've written."

For this part of the concert, Mahr, conductor of the St. Olaf Band, gladly passed the baton off to Kesikli. "The Emperor is quite strong, displaying solid craft supporting witty musical ideas," says Mahr. "Egemen is an effective conductor with strong potential."

Watch Kesikli "in action" as he leads the St. Olaf Band through The Emperor (after his introduction by Mahr starting at the 18:12 mark).

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or