Arts & Culture

New UCF Music Professor Composes Classical Music With a Twist

Alex Burtzos, a composer and conductor, has made a career of making music that has been called “incomparable to anything existing.” Now he is an assistant professor of composition at UCF.

By Arielle Feldman |
October 3, 2018

Composer and conductor Alex Burtzos first learned to play music in high school and loves to combine classical music with popular genres, like hip-hop.

Composer and conductor Alex Burtzos first learned to play music in high school and loves to combine classical music with popular genres, like hip-hop.

Alex Burtzos’ music education started in high school, where he learned how to play the euphonium while also drumming for local rock-and-roll bands. When he got to college, he decided to pursue a career in music composition.

“I realized that music was the most effective way to channel my creativity,” says Burtzos.

“I realized that music was the most effective way to channel my creativity.”

After receiving his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate all in composition, he went on to perform in concerts across four continents. He collaborated with some of the world’s leading contemporary music ensembles; founded ICEBERG New Music, a New York-based composer’s collective; and became conductor of the hip-hop/classical music orchestra ShoutHouse.

Hip-hop/classical music? Yes, you read that right. In his new endowed position at UCF, Burtzos will teach music students how to push the limits of composition like he has.

“Our long-range goal is to make Central Florida a nationally-recognized center for music composition,” says Steve Goldman, executive director of the National Young Composers Challenge and endower of Burtzos’ position. “We are excited that Alex will be joining the Central Florida composition community and believe that his contributions will be key to achieving our goal.”

Learn more about Burtzos, his inspiration for blending popular music with classical styles and his advice for aspiring musicians.

Your music often combines multiple genres. What’s your favorite genre to work with?

It’s impossible to pick just one, but I love classical music, rock-and-roll and hip-hop. I especially have a soft spot for songs that aspire to be “the perfect pop song” — something that is so tight and integral that you couldn’t take anything away without lessening the song’s impact.

What inspired you to pursue these intersections of popular and classical styles?

I think that popular music offers an emotional immediacy that concert music will never be able to match, while concert music offers a depth of expression and a mechanism for creating large, narrative structures. By fusing these two styles, you get the best of both worlds.

You’re the conductor of a hip-hop/classical music orchestra. How did you discover this interesting combination of genres?

I don’t know if it’s something you find so much as it’s something you give yourself freedom to do. For centuries there’s been a prescribed way to compose and only one acceptable style of art music that everyone was taught to work inside. Now, in the age of Spotify, there’s been a great democratization of style, and music-makers are freer than ever before to go wherever they want. ShoutHouse isn’t the first orchestra to be influenced by lots of different genres, but we might be the first whose academic training has left us unconstrained enough to explore these genres fully.

Who’s your favorite hip-hop artist?

Right now, I don’t think anyone is quite on the level of Kendrick Lamar. He definitely deserved the Pulitzer Prize in Music that he won last year.

“When the music becomes a public communication as opposed to a private endeavor, that’s the best moment of music-making for me.”

Do you have a favorite moment of your music career?

Rather than a single favorite moment, I have a favorite moment within the process of composing: when you are able to start interacting with other people. So often the process starts with you alone in a room, staring at notes or waveforms for a long time. But at some point, the music will leave that room, and you’re either going to share it with other musicians or with an audience. When the music becomes a public communication as opposed to a private endeavor, that’s the best moment of music-making for me. And I get to experience it over and over again.

What are you most looking forward to in your new role at UCF?

I’m looking forward to working with young composers. I was very fortunate when I was a student to have generous and gifted teachers that helped me succeed, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to fulfill that same role in my own students’ careers.

And I’m excited about the National Young Composers Challenge! It presents an amazing opportunity for composers who are not yet at the collegiate level. It’s very rare for pre-collegiate composers to hear their work performed by a full orchestra, so it gives these young composers a tremendous leg-up. I’ll be taking an active role in the administration of the competition.

What advice can you offer aspiring musicians?

Whether you’re a performer or composer, learn everything you can about everything and be flexible! To carve out a career in music, you’ll end up doing a lot of different things, so the more you’re capable of, the more success you’ll have.