When some of us hear a particular piano piece, even one from the great composers, observations might end with, “Oh, that sounds nice.” Seldom are we able to recall why we liked or disliked what we did. Yet to Austin Sbarra ’18, a music and communications studies double major, a piano piece isn’t just a series of sounds; it’s a challenge, a dare to uncover the elements that produced them and a chance to create something new.
For the SJU Summer Scholar’s program, Sbarra is engaged in a project that revolves around Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8, Op. 13, or “Pathetique.” His goal is to analyze the harmonic and formal structures in the composition to then create a new piece using those elements, while incorporating his own musical interest and influences, mainly jazz artists like Bill Evans.
Sbarra is working under the guidance of Suzanne Sorkin, Ph.D. chair and associate professor of music, theater and film.
“While Austin’s compositional voice is quite different from Beethoven’s,” says Sorkin. “the idea of binding together melodic and rhythmic material through use of a ‘motive,’ or recurring musical phrase, is applicable to a number of different styles including classical and jazz.”
Sbarra, from Bel Air, Maryland, is currently analyzing the introduction and exposition sections of the first movement, which is in a sonata form. He is also currently in the precompositional phase, which involves developing 3 motives, similar to those of Beethoven, for his own composition.
“Creativity can come in more structured forms. In Beethoven’s work, he managed to break classical convention by modulating, or moving keys, while staying within the form,” says Sbarra. “I will be working through 3 motives and try to be creative in using them in different contexts and transpositions, much as I have seen in the Pathetique.”
Sbarra is involved in the SJU jazz band as lead pianist and occasional alto saxophonist, where he is also the president. He holds a student work study position for the Department of Music, Theater and Film and SJU’s Department of Athletic Communications. Additionally, he is a teaching assistant for Sorkin and a Residential Assistant.
“Music is universal in that it spans genres,” says Sbarra. “What holds true for classical composition can also hold true for jazz. In fact, that’s how jazz originally came to be. For me, it becomes a challenge to find the balance between the two genres.”
Project Title: Beethoven as a Blueprint: Using a Theoretical Analysis of a Beethoven Sonata as the Framework for Piano Composition
Mentor: Suzanne Sorkin, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of music, theater and film
Hometown: Bel Air, Maryland