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Portrait of an Artist: Court Callis ’27

April 12, 2024

Rie Du
COMPOSED: Court Callis '27 poses in Studzinski Recital Hall. Callis' original piece, "Face the Unfamiliar," was performed by the Bowdoin College Concert Band at its performance last Sunday.

On Sunday, Director of the Bowdoin College Concert Band John Morneau stood before the audience in Kanbar Auditorium and began introducing an original composition by band member Court Callis ’27. Before he could finish his sentence, the crowd burst into applause.

“[Morneau] was joking to the audience, ‘I haven’t even talked about the piece … We haven’t even played it yet,” Callis said in an interview with the Orient. “After the piece concluded, he had me stand up and I got to see the audience clapping.… That felt amazing.”

The Concert Band’s show, entitled “Something New, Something Old, Something Beautiful, Something Bold,” served as the premiere of “Face the Unfamiliar,” Callis’ first orchestral composition—remarkably, one that he completed with little formal training in orchestration.

“It was a very maturely written piece, especially considering that he had never written [music] before.… Someone that all of a sudden comes out of the gate and nails it on their first attempt—it’s rare, and it’s impressive,” Morneau said.

While he didn’t begin writing the piece with any particular intention, “Face the Unfamiliar,” attempts to convey a feeling of unease based on Callis’ personal experience after his father’s death.

“I didn’t have a goal in mind. It was just me playing around and making music. But it does have that tone of unfamiliarity.… It correlates to how I dealt with my dad’s passing,” Callis said. “And then it’s supposed to have this grand resolve at the end … [expressing how] I’m handling it. I’m making it through and moving on to the next chapter of my life.”

The performance on Sunday held particular weight for Morneau, Callis and the entire Concert Band as it came just a week after the passing of band member K Zhan ’25, to whom the show was dedicated. Callis mentioned that his memories of K were especially linked to “Face the Unfamiliar.”

“She was one of the first people to give me a compliment [on the piece].… That was something that really stuck with me—and stuck with me during the concert,” Callis said.

Callis, who hails from Arkansas, first became interested in music in eighth grade when a group of his friends convinced him to join his school’s band. While he began playing the trumpet, he soon shifted to the French horn when the opportunity arose.

“They were picking out trumpet players to play the French horn. And I thought, ‘What’s the harm?’ It turns out I was actually pretty decent for a first-time player,” Callis said.

Although he started playing music in middle school, Callis didn’t begin composing until he was 17, just after his father passed away. As he processed the loss, music became a way for him to stay grounded.

“I needed a hobby to keep myself going, to keep my spirits up. And so I played around on a piano and found a little melody that wouldn’t leave my mind,” Callis said. “Since I had been in a band since middle school, I was like, ‘What if I made this for an entire band?’… and I eventually got somewhere.”

Callis stepped away from the piece for over six months, but he found inspiration to finish it after coming to Bowdoin. In addition to joining the band, Callis took a music theory course with Professor Vineet Shende which helped develop his musical knowledge and allowed him to incorporate more complex musical elements into the piece.

In January, Morneau received an email from Callis with the piece as he was finalizing the music for Concert Band in the spring. Immediately, he knew “Face the Unfamiliar” should be added to the program.

“I didn’t know he had any composing skills or aspirations before that…. After I listened to it for the first time I said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to include this.’ I’ve been doing this for a long time and it impressed me as really well conceived,” Morneau said.

Morneau, who has directed the Concert Band since 1988, has worked with student composers before—such as Francis Kayali ’01, now a professional composer and musician—but he noted that Callis is the first first-year student who has submitted an independently written piece of music to him.

Callis and Morneau worked through multiple versions of the piece, perfecting it before bringing it before the rest of Concert Band. Much like Morneau, Callis’ peers were touched by the piece and responded enthusiastically.

“When we first took it up in rehearsal, I certainly hyped it up because someone inside the group had written it,” Morneau said. “But we played it through the first time and the group just gave a huge ovation. Every time we played it, everyone was very complimentary to him.”

Up until a week and a half before the concert, Callis was still unsure about how his composition sounded. But at one rehearsal, he took a step back. Instead of playing, he listened to the band run through the piece.

“It hit me. I was like, ‘This sounds a lot better than I was expecting.’ [I’d just been] too wrapped up in my own section and what I was playing to actually hear it,” Callis said. “That relief of being able to fully hear how it sounded and have it all come together during rehearsal was probably the second-best feeling to actually performing it.”

Looking forward, Callis aims to keep composing and take more music theory courses at Bowdoin to hone his skills as a composer.

“I’m hoping that with more experience in orchestration classes and theory classes I can continue to make more [music]. Some more pieces are definitely in the works for the future,” Callis said.

Morneau added that Callis is already working on new material.

“He’s got the bug now,” Morneau said.



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