Sean Harken, a student in the University of Iowa School of Music, found a natural outlet for his musical talents. The Iowa City native created the soundtrack for a new video hyping the Performing Arts at Iowa initiative.
Bronwyn Stewart
Jill Tobin
David Scrivner
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Sean Harken plays a piano in the Voxman Music Building while William Menefield, assistant professor of jazz studies, observes. Harken, a student majoring in vocal performance, worked with Menefield to compose the music used in the new Performing Arts at Iowa promotional video.

When you need a signature sound for the Performing Arts at Iowa initiative, why not turn to one of the talented students in the University of Iowa School of Music to create an original composition?

Sean Harken, a third-year student and bass-baritone vocalist, spent the fall semester composing music for a video showcasing Iowa’s new, interdisciplinary initiative.

“I wanted to find the right genre of feeling,” says Harken, an Iowa City native who fell in love with music and composition while singing in choirs at West High. He’s pursuing a Bachelor of Music in Voice Performance at Iowa.

At the University of Iowa, there are abundant opportunities to participate in the arts—both on campus and in the surrounding community that is known for its creative, collaborative, and innovative spirit. Performing Arts at Iowa brings together communication and engagement efforts for Hancher Auditorium; the UI academic departments of Music, Theatre Arts, and Dance; and the Performing Arts Production Unit.

“We wanted to set a new tone,” says Jen Knights, who worked on the video as part of the Performing Arts at Iowa marketing and communication team. “We were looking to convey the vibrancy, volume, and diversity of the arts on our campus—in a way that invites everyone to come be a part of it.”

Harken’s busy spring

This spring, Sean Harken will be performing with Kantorei, the UI’s premier choral ensemble, and one of his original compositions has also been chosen for a Guest Chamber Recital by the JACK Quartet. The recital is part of the quartet’s spring residency with the University of Iowa String Quartet Residency Program, in collaboration with the Center for New Music.

The creative team reached out to the School of Music for an authentic UI sound. The team initially spoke to William Menefield, UI assistant professor of jazz studies and composer of the opera Fierce—which debuted at the Cincinnati Opera in July 2022 and will be produced at Hancher this spring.

“When we approached Dr. Menefield about the track, he had the excellent idea of engaging a student composer, and he introduced us to Sean, a talented student he’d been working with one-on-one through his Jazz Piano and Rhythm course. Sean’s work with us became part of his coursework for the class,” Knights says.

Menefield and Harken began working together in the spring of 2023. “Our lessons were becoming more focused on composition,” Menefield explains. “That’s what led me to recommend Sean for this project. It was the perfect opportunity for him to hone the skills we were developing in our lessons and create something as a professional musician.”

Harken also has studied composition with Associate Professor Jean-Francois Charles and voice with Professor Stephen Swanson. He often writes pieces for student voice and small chamber ensembles, and his works have been performed by the Atlantic Music Festival’s Contemporary Music Ensemble and Quartet Contemporaine.

“I’ve been taking jazz piano classes with Dr. Menefield,” Harken says. “I wanted to take jazz piano to become a better pianist but also to expose myself to new genres of music. I really try to listen to and incorporate various styles into my work.”

university of Iowa music student Sean Harken

“I think it really represents the performance culture at Iowa. It feels triumphant but also inspiring.”

Sean Harken
on his composition ”Lights Up”

Harken started working with staff on the creative team to develop the sound for the video. “The hardest part of the process was at the beginning, trying to find the initial idea to build on,” Harken says. “It was challenging. I developed a few sketches, experimenting with different atmospheres and instruments to land on the right genre of feeling.”

Harken and the staff worked together, sharing music and beats with each other to help develop the initial sound samples. They wanted the music to convey a narrative that is both inviting and energizing—and one that tells the backstory of all the work, preparation, and education that goes into creating high-quality performances for audiences to enjoy. They also wanted to represent the vast array of music created and performed at the School of Music, featuring different instruments, and mixing classical and contemporary styles.

Developing the music for the video was a deeply collaborative process. After Harken sent the creative team a few initial sample tracks, he received feedback and suggestions for editing and expanding his composition. “It was an interesting process,” Harken says, before adding with a smile, “None of them were musicians, so I had to translate their notes into musical terms. It’s something I’ve never done, but I began to enjoy the interpretive process. Their notes were really helpful.”

Iowa: Your destination for the performing arts

dancers performing on stage

At the University of Iowa, creativity is at the heart of everything we do. We collaborate across campus and community, blending artistry and technology to offer a tremendous variety of ways to enjoy the performing arts—whether you are a creator, performer, or audience member.

The final composition incorporates synthesized instruments, string and brass parts, and some electronic sounds. Harken described his composition as “a typical symphonic sound with some electronica,” adding, “I think it really represents the performance culture at Iowa. It feels triumphant but also inspiring.”

The resulting track, which the team together named “Lights Up,” is a fitting accompaniment to the final video, which is a montage of footage from across Iowa’s vibrant performing arts classrooms, production and design units, rehearsals, and stages—as well as community spaces where the arts come to life.

“Sean’s composition adds another layer of meaning to the Performing Arts at Iowa video,” Knights says. “It’s a perfect example of how our university prepares performers and musicians for professional careers. Sean worked for us as a professional, and he’ll have complete ownership of the composition.”

“Finding success as a musician isn’t all about the music,” says Menefield. “It also involves developing business skills like communication and professional etiquette. I think Sean’s done a wonderful job putting these skills into practice with this project, and I think he’s going to have a bright future.”