Chelsea Komschlies circle headshot CC057.png

Dear Harvard University Faculty,

I hope that the following offers a comprehensive insight into my work, process, and goals. I have divided this page into two main sections:

1. Composition work

2. Research interests

These two categories are really part of one connected whole. It’s important to me that during doctoral study I develop and improve my compositional style. My process stems from the unique synesthetic and richly phantasial way my brain seems to categorize new information, respond to powerful experiences, and create. My mind creates vivid, spontaneous imagery in response to certain thoughts, music, and experiences, a sort of dreaming while awake, which is further heightened by relaxed and altered mental states. When I compose, it’s the reverse process: I hold mental imagery (over which I’ve had some conscious control) in my present mind and “listen” for spontaneous musical ideas from imagination. In either direction, the spontaneous mental connections are never random but always consistent and happen when my mind senses a powerful congruence between things.

In my compositional work, I am interested in learning how to maintain these connections to meaning but express them more abstractly.

My research interests likewise stem from these connections between the music and something outside of itself, whether it be metaphors of parts of internal or external human experience or relation to something with which the mind has already had contact.


Composition Portfolio

Un fond de paysage triste et glacé


At the beginning of his piano prelude Des pas sur la neige, Debussy includes the following performance instruction: “Ce rythme doit avoir la valeur sonore d’un fond de paysage triste et glacé” (“This rhythm must have the sonorous value of a sad and frozen landscape”). I have modeled my string quartet abstractly on Debussy’s prelude. I have always been fascinated by Debussy’s prelude because it seems to evoke varying states of alertness or reverie that one might experience, for example, while walking and becoming lost in memories. The aim was to evoke the essence of each of the prelude’s phrases, conjuring the same images and placement on a spectrum of cognitive awareness versus reverie. I have expanded the roughly four minutes of the prelude into this fourteen minute string quartet without explicit quotation of the prelude. Every now and then however, for example in the very opening notes of the quartet, one can hear Debussy’s music peeking through. For more on the idea of this consciousness continuum, see my research proposal.


The Arborist, the Alchemist

This is my second orchestral piece. In this work I experimented with orchestration that treated the ensemble as one enormous, gelatinous monster that sort of drips and melts like candle wax. Throughout the piece I sculpt in thick, microtonal harmonies that contain so many notes that they become textures and shapes more than chords. It is this element of “microtonal sound sculpture” that feels the most personal and genuine and that I plan to explore and develop further as part of my style.

Program Note: The Arborist, The Alchemist conjures memories of early Baroque music and still older alchemical ideas as if through the lens of an ever shifting kaleidoscope which bends and distorts the image it contains. Except for a distorted quotation of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater early in the piece at rehearsal D, all of the rest of what sounds like early music has been newly composed. At the center of the work is a sarabande which seems to carry inside it intimate memories of love and loss. The sarabande appears in fragments again and again, at times lush and longing, at other times distorted and grotesque. It never quite gets to be heard in a non-distorted entirety before being interrupted.


Research Interests

I am particularly interested in the topic of meaning across the arts. This stems from the powerfully associative way I experience art as well as day to day life. I’m excited by the possibility there would be at Harvard to create a dissertation project that unifies my compositional work with development of an expanded theory of musical meaning. I’m also attracted by the possibility for interdisciplinary study, as the topic crosses disciplinary lines into cognitive science, philosophy, and other fields. Below I’ve listed an outline of the categories of musical meaning I perceive to be important. Please read my research proposal for more explanation. Completing this research is important to me not just because of curiosity but because I sense a need for this expanded theory of meaning in our field. It’s important to understanding and formalizing my own process but also because I hope to come out of my doctoral degree able to offer something specific and unique to an institution as a member of their faculty.

Categories of Musical Meaning

Metaphors of the Inner Self

  • Emotion: anything from complex feelings such as bittersweet longing to very basic and primal ones such as safety vs. danger, fear, noxious vs. pleasant, etc. 

  • State of Consciousness: the degree to which one is focused on and aware of one’s present surroundings and the present moment versus unaware of those surroundings and focused inward, in reverie

Metaphors of the Environment / Outer Self

  • Visual/Textural: This includes color, shape and size (e.g., large blocks, long tendrils, waves), material (e.g., glassy, smooth, rough, prickly, liquid), etc. but not specific objects from memory

  • Location/Velocity: closely related to visual/textural metaphor but deals with placement, speed, and direction within four dimensional space-time of the imagined visuals or of the subject/self. The dimension of time comes into play when we seem to perceive a manipulation of time from the vantage point of an omniscient third person.

Relationship to Other Things

  • Similarity to another form: Any connection one instinctually feels between the music and some other thing, be it another piece of music, another artwork, specific memories, objects real or fictional.

Writing sample

The following writing sample, “Moments of Fracture in the Rondoletto from Stravinsky’s Sérénade en La and their Relation to Juan Gris’s Cubist Symmetry Transformations,” shows an example of the last category at work. In this case, the relationship is between Stravinsky’s music and Gris’ cubist art. Prior to any analysis, I instinctively felt that this movement sounded particularly “cubist,” and within this movement, the six moments of “fracture,” likewise found by ear, seemed to hold that which made the music sound cubist. From there I began to analyze and show why this hearing was warranted, using the best tools at hand for this particular case.


Thank you!

Many thanks for taking the time to read and listen. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or would like to see additional materials.

Take care, and Happy New Year.

- Chelsea