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Northwestern Undergraduate Wins Beinecke Scholarship

Conner VanderBeek’s studies blend Asian studies and music composition

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May 2, 2014 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Conner VanderBeek began “messing around” on a 45-key electronic keyboard at age 4 or 5. In second grade, his mother signed him up for piano lessons, expecting his interest to wane. It didn’t -- and this spring the Northwestern University undergraduate won a Beinecke Scholarship that will support his graduate education in music composition and ethnomusicology to the tune of $34,000.

“Those lessons wound up a good investment,” says VanderBeek, who is in the fourth year of a five-year program, majoring in music composition in the Bienen School of Music and Asian studies at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. With the Beinecke Scholarship, he plans to pursue both topics at Oxford University, Yale University or the New England Conservatory.

VanderBeek envisioned himself as a professional pianist until he developed stress fractures in his hands as a high school junior -- the result of too many hours trying to master Chopin’s Etude in C-Sharp Minor. “It’s a dauntingly fast composition that gives pianists the shudders,” he says. He wound up in hand casts for six weeks the summer before his senior year of high school. 

At Northwestern, he began to study Hindi to satisfy Weinberg’s language requirement. And the study of Hindi led him to South Asian studies. Because his mother is from Punjab, a northwest province of India, he already spoke fluent Punjabi and had exposure to Sikhism, a religion founded in the Punjab region of the subcontinent.

“Composition is part of my personal and musical identity,” says VanderBeek, son of Sharon Ghag and Brian VanderBeek of Salida, Calif. “South Asian studies is part of my cultural or where-do-I belong in the world identity.” His first ethnomusicology project at Northwestern explored the sacred music of Sikhism.

“Conner’s interest in Asian studies complements his skill and energy as a composer and performer,” says Peter Carroll, associate professor of history. “Many composers are content to appropriate instruments or compositional styles from other cultural traditions. Conner brings a sophisticated musicological perspective to the possibilities and challenges of a cosmopolitan approach to composition.”

Most of his ethnographic explorations have involved the Sikh temple in Chicago, where he is a member. “I’ve played holy music there but, in terms of using Sikh style or approach to my own music composition, I’ve not bridged that,” he says. “I’m still figuring out where I belong as a western art composer studying a culture that defines music in a very different way.”

In independent study with Inna Naroditskaya, associate professor of musicology, he is doing researching Sikh weddings in Chicago as well as current literary theory.

VanderBeek boasts of a broad range of influences. He listens to American jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny, jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau, mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile and everything from jazz to hip-hop to progressive rock.

In February, he premiered “Three Scenes, for Large Chamber Ensemble,” an unusual piece performed by Northwestern students. “It was a ridiculous idea that I explored to its fullest potential,” VanderBeek says. At one point in the piece, someone begins tossing crumpled paper at the musicians on stage, who respond on their instruments each time they get hit.

“I hear music in everything around me,” VanderBeek says. “In my spare time, I compose, and in my work time, I compose.” In between, he attends just about every concert at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall that Northwestern offers.

The Beinecke Scholarship Program was established in 1971 by the board of directors of The Sperry and Hutchinson Company to provide substantial scholarships for exceptional undergraduates to pursue graduate education. Colleges and universities can select only one student from their school to apply for the award. VanderBeek was one of 20 undergraduates out of 88 students selected by their institutions of higher learning to compete for the prestigious scholarship.

The Beinecke Scholarship is available only to students who are in their penultimate year of undergraduate study in the arts, humanities or social sciences, and who plan to attend graduate school. Information about the scholarship is available through the Office of Fellowships. Contact Sara Vaux at scv@northwestern.edu for more information.

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