Finding beauty in darkness with assistant professor Evan Ware

By Christian Malone, December 5, 2023

In the middle of his contemporary classical music theory class, between in-class activities on pitch-class set theory and practice questions for an upcoming quiz, Assistant Professor of Music Evan Ware breaks the silence of the room to launch a discussion with the class about the importance of learning.

Ware acknowledges that there’s a common notion that educators should be all-knowing experts on a subject. But he denies that notion.

“You should always be learning,” he says. “You should always be learning because we’re all imperfect souls, and we observe the world through our imperfect senses.”

The students in the room are no stranger to these off-subject, philosophical discussions. This is already the third one of the hour. For Ware, such tangents are a part of his mission not to simply teach his curriculum but instead instill an essential sense of wonder in his students.

“Yeah, I want to teach them the content, but I also want to teach them to learn for themselves so that they have that love and that capacity for the rest of their lives,” Ware said. “If you maintain an open and curious mind, it just makes for a richer life.”

For Ware, becoming a lifelong learner comes before anything else, and through his scholarship and composition of music, he hopes to find new ways to communicate both about music and through the artform itself.

In 2019, while Ware was teaching at Central Michigan University, he received his most recent chance to communicate through music when he was approached by Kevin Fitzgerald, the founder and music director of ÆPEX Contemporary Performance, who commissioned a symphony from Ware for the collective’s residency at the university.

Evan Ware working on his composition.

While he initially set out to make something entirely disconnected from “The Quietest of Whispers,” his first symphony that tells the story of healing from abuse, he was convinced to change course when he read of the conviction of former Michigan State University and U.S. women’s gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar, who abused hundreds of girls during his career as a team doctor, prompted Ware to revisit the topics of abuse and survival.

In “Symphony No. 2,” Ware focuses not on the process of healing but rather existence after rehabilitation. Leaning on the same whole-tone scale throughout the first five movements, Ware utilizes poems by Jane Hirshfield to cycle through the ongoing struggles survivors face long after their traumatic experiences where painful memories can pop up in everyday life. Finally, in the fifth movement, “Crossing,” the abrasive sound of a passing train shifts the piece out of its previously fixed scale, offering a new path, new horizons and a sense of beauty in the face of suffering.

While his first symphony acted as a triumphant reflection of the healing process in one’s past, the second more modestly offers a place of comfort for those who are actively forced to live on with the effects of their trauma.

“Sure, I was sexually abused as a child, and that messed me up and made my life very difficult,” Ware said. “But I don’t need to dwell on that. I have that experience, so what can I do with it? I can comfort others.”

Outside of composition, Ware remains an active scholar of music, most recently coediting “Music in Star Trek: Sound, Utopia, and the Future” during his three-year tenure thus far at CPP. The book, which is the first academic book dedicated entirely to the music of the Star Trek franchise, is his latest dive into the world of popular music analysis and offered a way for him to analyze a franchise near and dear to his heart.

For Ware, the purpose of the book, much like his explorations of music in the past, is to analyze music not just as an artform but a form of communication.

“Music is constantly conveying information to you,” Ware said. “I think if you don’t understand it, then you’re less media literate than you were. So it’s important to know what effects music has on people, and then for composers, this literature can give them new ideas and new directions to take film music in so it can grow like anything else.”

Prior to the beginning of his journey as a composer and researcher, Ware began his life in higher-education at the University of Ottawa, graduating with a bachelor’s in music composition and theory in 2000. His first premiered piece of music debuted at St. James United Church in Montreal in 2001, and he enrolled at Université de Montréal to pursue his master’s the next year.

With his master’s degree, Ware was able to also begin pursuing music education, teaching music theory and composition classes at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University.

In 2008, Ware took the final leap of his academic career, moving south to the U.S. to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy in composition and music theory at the University of Michigan where he continued teaching, composing and volunteering. His seven years in Ann Arbor culminated in his two dissertations: “Their Ways: Theorizing Reinterpretation in Popular Music,” a 150-page essay offering a deep dive into covers of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” alongside his first symphony “The Quietest of Whispers.”

The symphony, scored for a chamber orchestra and premiered in 2014, sees Ware draw from his survival of childhood sexual abuse to tell a story of healing and rehabilitation, contrasting feelings of grief and shame with acceptance and progress.

For Ware, the symphony was not a way for him to wallow in negative feelings but rather offer both himself and other survivors a way to overcome them.

“I can’t erase what was done to me, but I can be a light for others and help others get through the tough times that come after abuse,” Ware said. “The unprogramming of the abuse is really hard, and I think that’s where music has great power to get around our defenses and help us feel the things we need to feel.”

With his first symphony and a PhD under his belt, Ware spent the next few years continuing to teach, research and volunteer, spending two years at Madonna University in Michigan and a year at Georgia State University before settling into a role as an assistant professor at CMU in 2017, where he would eventually compose his aforementioned second symphony.

Even though Ware’s most recent accomplishments include the joint commercial release of his two symphonies and the release of his book, “Music in Star Trek: Sound, Utopia, and the Future,” his journey as a composer and music theorist began long before his days at CPP.

While Ware now embraces music as a central part of his life as a composer, scholar and educator, he wasn’t born with the deep love for the artform he has now.

He was exposed to a variety of music during his childhood through his family, particularly his father, who loved jazz, and his stepbrother who extensively listened to Madonna and other popular music of the time. He also played the trumpet for a short time starting in middle school. But even with this constant exposure, Ware did not take as much interest in music as his family members.

During his years at the Glebe Collegiate Institute high school in Ottawa, however, Ware found that love after re-enrolling in band class and being exposed to one of the most influential pieces of the Romantic period.

“I started playing trumpet in middle school, and in high school, I did it for a year and then stopped,” Ware said. “But I kind of missed it and wanted to get back into it, so I took band class, and we played a piece in the band class called ‘March to the scaffold’ from Hector Berlioz from his symphony called ‘Symphonie fantastique.’”

The piece, which depicts the hallucinations of a troubled artist who poisons himself with opium when faced with unrequited love, resonated with Ware, who was going through unrequited love at the time, like no other piece previously had.

“That was the beginning, where I was like, ‘Oh, music can mean something,’” Ware said. “And it can mean something to us that’s not just what the lyrics say, and instrumental music can talk about powerful things of that nature.”

Inspired by the vivid storytelling of the piece and disillusioned with the physics classes he was pursuing at the time, he attended his first orchestra concert later that year. After recognizing that playing music could be a legitimate career path, he solidified his decision to change course in his penultimate year of high school and pursue a career in music.

While he originally considered the possibility of becoming a professional trumpet player, Ware again changed his path after hearing another influential piece of music: Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”

While he was initially put off by the piece, his father implored him to listen to the instrumentation. Unlike most pieces written for string quartets which are scored for two violins, Messiaen’s piece was scored for a violin, cello, piano and clarinet.

Through a conversation with his father, Ware learned that the choice of instrumentation was not an artistic one but rather one of necessity. Messiaen wrote the piece while interned at a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, and those instruments were the only ones available at the time.

Surrounded by the horrors of war, Messiaen drew from his Roman Catholic faith and composed a unique piece that forgoes the regular rhythmic patterns of Western music and incorporates passages inspired by bird songs.

“I listened to the piece from beginning to end, and I like to say that at the beginning, I was not a composer, and by the end, I was,” Ware said.

Throughout all of his experiences, both in his youth and his recent exploits as a theorist and composer, the one constant has been Ware’s appreciation for music as a form of communication.

This mission to communicate through the artform has also driven Ware’s teaching here at CPP, where he has focused his curriculum on covering a wide variety of practices and music by diverse groups of people. And while Ware still wants his music to be heard by those it is dedicated to, he hopes his work as a scholar, advocate and educator enables as many people as possible to communicate through music.

“I don’t necessarily want to have a big career, because there’s plenty of other voices that need to be heard,” Ware said. “I want to reach the people out there who want to hear what I have to say, of course, but not at the expense of other people and all the voices and different experiences we can have at the table.”

Evan Ware with his book, “Music in Star Trek: Sound, Utopia, and the Future” and album, “The Quietest of Whispers.”

Feature image and photo credit: Christian Malone 

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