One of the SAMRO Overseas Scholarship finalists, UCT student Conrad Asman. Picture: Supplied

The 2018 SAMRO Overseas Scholarships Competition for Composers is set to take place on August 18 at the Linder Auditorium in Johannesburg. 

In the competition, five composers will battle for a R200 000 grand prize scholarship to study a postgraduate degree overseas. 

The SAMRO Foundation rotates in its focus every four years, alternately rewarding outstanding singers, instrumentalists, keyboard players and composers. 

The two main categories for the awards are Jazz and Western Art. 

The finalists for this year’s competition include Andrew Hoole, Conrad Asman, Lise Morrison, Ndabuzekwayo Perfect Bombo and Riley Giandhari. 

We spoke to Conrad Asman before the big night to find out what it takes to be a composer. Hailing from Johannesburg, the UCT student is in his fourth year of his B. Mus, at the South African College of Music. 

He started playing the piano when he was four years old and violin at seven, and the reason he began composing was that he disliked practising.

 As he progressed, he discovered that he was more interested in the creation of music than the practising and reiteration of it. He remembered that when he was a boy and wanted to play My Heart Will Go On, by Celine Dion, he rearranged it so that it would accommodate his small hands. 

The reason he decided to enter the competition was not just for the obvious monetary value of winning, but also the chance to write new pieces to boost his portfolio for postgraduate studies. 

When it comes to classical music composition, the two main categories that spring to mind are orchestral and choral pieces. 

The gifted composer is able to do both and while the two processes are different, he doesn’t have a preference. 

“I like both, but for different reasons. With choral music, you have a much larger spectrum of expression and, because it’s the voice and the voice is fundamentally a human characteristic, it has more connotation with emotion and feeling from a human perspective. 

Whereas with orchestral music, the advantage is you have a lot of dexterity in the texture you’re able to have. 

Violins and violas can play crazy melodies at vivacious speeds, which you might not be able to do with the voice. I also like to switch them around and make the vocal music more challenging for the performer, versus making orchestral music more expressive.” The finalists for the scholarships were required to compose three pieces. 

Asman entered the Western Classical Art Music category, so composed an orchestral piece, a trio instrumental piece and a new piece that blends classical and jazz music. 

He also used to sing in choirs and even had one of his own pieces, On A Night, make its debut performance at Carnegie Hall when the Cape Town Youth Choir performed during its tour in New York City. 

When talking about the feelings he goes through if a piece does get chosen for performance, he says: “First, rehearsals are nerve-wracking – making sure the score is clean and makes sense. 

I can always tell after the first run-through what the musicians think about it. And how does a piece work and where does it not work. And I also urge composers to have the piece read by someone because the computer and theory rules will lie to you. 

So, (there are) nerves and relief.” He furthermore also possesses perfect pitch, which he sees as both a blessing and a curse. 

“I am able to enjoy music; I think I’ll try and keep that interest alive. The more something becomes analytical, it is very easy to destroy that love of listening.” 

When it comes to the enjoyment of music, the composer also wants people to listen to more classical music and for musicians, on the flip side, to listen to new music. He says that when people hear classical music, they often think of a three-hour-long opera, but when musicians think of new music, they think it is weird and possesses no artistic value whatsoever. 

“For me, that’s far from the case – new music in South Africa is exploring different cultures and trying to experiment. 

What is really important for our society is to support the arts, because in these trying political times, I think it’s important to take a break.” While he says music can’t provide bread for a family or cure depression, it does it give one a break from real life and that’s a really powerful tool to have for a society.