College of Music

University of Colorado Boulder

Elephant gig revives grad student Brett Madsen's interest in orchestral music

September 9, 2013

Elephant Revival. College of Music graduate student Brett Madsen wrote orchestral arrangements for the Nederland-based folk-rock band at the Colorado Music Festival's Music Mash-up in August. Photo by Jody Evans.

BOULDER, Colo. — Brett Madsen was deeply interested in music as a high-school student in Florida. It just wasn’t the pop, rock, hip-hop and other genres most of his peers listened to. 

He was into classical music, from Bach and Beethoven to Mozart and Chopin. And he was very into writing the same kind of thing.

“I was interested in writing some pseudo-Bartok, had a little bag of Gershwin tricks, a little Rachmaninoff,” says Madsen, now pursuing a doctorate in composition at CU-Boulder’s College of Music.. “Mostly what I was writing was pretty sappy.”

But when he headed off to the University of Miami it rocked his world. 

“I gave myself a second major in rock (music) history while I was an undergraduate. … I started with The Beatles and went on from there to Led Zeppelin, the Stones” and beyond, he says. “Essentially, I abandoned all those sounds from high school.”

He still liked composing, but felt he was working toward an aesthetic that merged rock and roll with classical composition.

After earning a master’s degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago, he came to CU-Boulder to pursue his doctorate. At CU, he found himself going deeper and deeper into “writing rock and roll with compositional techniques” — and of late, moving into electronic dance-based music. 

“That isn’t what everyone expects when they bring you into (a music) school. Fortunately at CU, it’s a pretty open department,” he says. Still, he says, he was getting the message from composition faculty that they couldn’t give him a degree for a project centered on his electronic music.

So it sounded like a perfect opportunity when Associate Professor of Composition Daniel Kellogg asked if he might be interested in writing orchestral arrangements for the Nederland-based “transcendental folk” band Elephant Revival when it joined the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra for its Music Mash-up series in August.

“I said yes 16 or 17 times really, really fast,” says Madsen, who was one of three composers to create music for the concert on Aug. 6 at the Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder.

After meeting with violinist/vocalist Bridget Law, CMF board member — and mastermind behind the “mash-up” series — Jan Burton, Madsen went online and listened to every piece of Elephant Revival music he could find.

“I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was outstanding,” he says. “I was worried I would be working with a band I didn’t like.”

He began writing three pieces and meeting with the band, the beginning of an intense process of creation. He ended up writing some 24 minutes of music for 75 parts — 25 musicians performing three songs. Remarkably, the band rehearsed with the orchestra just twice before the concert.

“Huge cuts had to be made a few hours before we played. “I made some mistakes, but it came together. Overall, I think it was excellent,” he says.

The Elephant Revival gig was also the kind of project the composition department could get behind.

“For Brett, this project intersects his interests in classical music as well as his interest in pop/indie rock,” Kellogg says. “It’s a very exciting direction for him.”

Madsen says the experience has reawakened his interest in orchestral music. 

“I had promised myself I was never going to write for an orchestra again. But it’s not every day an orchestra says, ‘Here are the keys — enjoy!’ … This was something really musically vital and I saw how I might actually be a part of the art-music world when I had thought I was drifting away,” he says. “I hope I can get more projects in this vein.”

Composition, Students