These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you’ll hear in the concert hall.

Nov 1, 2023

Bay Area and Back: Composer Jens Ibsen
The San Francisco Symphony performs the world premiere of Jens Ibsen’s Drowned in Light, a Symphony commission, on November 11–12 as part of the California Festival: A Celebration of New Music. Ibsen is the 2022 winner of the Emerging Black Composers Project. We spoke with him about the award and his music.
You have an extremely rich musical background.
I was born in Ghana, where my dad had gone to study African drumming. So I grew up hearing a lot of music of the African diaspora, both from my dad, and what my mom would have on the car radio; everything from African jazz to Highlife, to Earth, Wind and Fire, and Michael Jackson. I heard classical music from my dad as well.
We moved to Daly City when I was 10 months old. And then, when I was 11, I joined the Vienna Boys Choir. [Ibsen was the first African-born member of that beloved ensemble.] That was a great musical education. We sang in some of the best halls in the world, with ensembles like the Vienna Philharmonic, doing big symphonic works, even singing the masses of Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and Bruckner in the buildings they were composed for!
I came back home for high school at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. That’s where I totally fell in love with opera. I would spend hours upon hours just listening to everyone from rising stars to singers of the Golden Age, and everything in between. It’s the music I most love to sing.
How did you get into composing?
I’ve been singing since I was six years old, and I was on track to do the whole conventional opera career thing. But then the pandemic dried up all my freelance work as a tenor, so I moved back to the Bay Area. I’ve had some vocal injuries and other setbacks, and they led me to step away from singing a bit and focus more on composing. And that’s opened up musical opportunities for me. I’ve written a lot of music for myself to perform, and I’m excited to share that with people in the future. Singing always has been and always will be a huge part of my life. And it’s pretty integral to my process as a composer. 
I have to ask about metal music. Not your standard musical influence!
I was in my early 20s when I got into it, thanks to being a huge anime fan, where it’s prominent in soundtracks. What I love about progressive [prog] metal as a genre is that it has a sort of composerly approach. The artists aren’t afraid to use weird time signatures, unusual polyrhythms, or extended range instruments. So here is all the stuff I like about contemporary classical music, in a package that I think is a lot more accessible to the average person.
How does that affect what Drowned in Light sound like?
I like a hook. I like a strong tune that grounds the piece. I’m very interested in creating a polyrhythmic groove. And of course, I really like classical forms. The first movement is a kind of prog metal song for orchestra. The second movement is in pop song form, which is also something I really like to do, because I think it's fun, and I just don't think you hear enough of that sort of thing.
Can you describe a typical day of composing?
I have a day job; I’m an application expert at a biotech company my dad founded, called StudyLog Systems. We make software for preclinical drug research. My performance background actually comes into play, because I’m basically talking to people for four hours at a stretch, teaching scientists how to use the software. I work nine to five like most of us, four to five days a week, so evenings and weekends are when I get to compose. I pride myself on working smarter. After about two to three hours, I usually reach a sort of natural stopping point in the piece. It’s flexible, and it’s dependent on my motivation and my availability. Hopefully if the composing is going well it doesn’t feel like a job!
What does it mean to you to be a winner of the Emerging Black Composers Project? 
It’s been wonderful for me and my fellow Black composers, but I believe we should also start thinking about composers that don't have the resources to go to a conservatory, that maybe were never taught music theory, that might have brilliant compositions, but don’t know how to write them down. How do we nurture those people and get them the education they need, so they can write concert music? How do we get people from different socioeconomic backgrounds into the concert hall? I want institutions to start thinking about how there are still other talented people that we might not readily recognize. Let's keep this energy for composers of other backgrounds, queer composers, Asian Pacific Islander composers, all kinds of people that we just traditionally don't hear from. Why do all this? Because, at a minimum, I think concert halls should reflect the demographics of the people that they are playing to. But also, because the music will be really good!
Steve Holt is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

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