William & Mary

Kevin Kay ’17 fast-tracked to become virtuoso composer

  • Virtuoso composer
    Virtuoso composer  Kevin Kay '17 combined music and physics to find his unique talent for the composition of spectral music, which he will pursue in graduate school in the fall.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Kevin Kay ’17 couldn’t decide which part of his double major of music and physics he would pursue after graduating from William & Mary, until the answer was made perfectly clear.

While taking Music Professor Sophia Serghi’s film scoring class, Kay showed some of the music compositions he’d been working on to her. She had one question: Why are you not going into music?

Serghi started sharing pieces of lesser-known music from various eras to Kay, and he couldn’t get enough of it. He started privately studying with her, writing score after score and will pursue the specialty of spectral music composition in graduate school at the University of Chicago in the fall.

“For Kevin it became almost like an obsession, this kind of aesthetic,” Serghi said. “Because it really tied very well with his other major, which is physics.”

Spectral music, which uses computer analysis and transformation of timbre according to the Oxford History of Western Music, is considered a difficult specialty rarely pursued at the undergraduate level, according to Serghi.

“Usually it’s something that one encounters in grad school, and very few will be triggered by that aesthetic because it requires a high knowledge of math, sound wave analysis, physics, which just comes naturally to Kevin,” Serghi said.

“And as I said, I am not equipped. I have not been equipped to really be a true mentor in that particular aesthetic for over a year now because he’s just surpassed any kind of knowledge that I have in that particular field. However, music is music. So when I hear something that doesn’t sound good, I’ll let him know.”

Kay said the more he was exposed to music of the last 100 years, he started to realize there are sub-genres of contemporary classical music that take a lot of inspiration from physics. He was really attracted to it.

“And that’s kind of where I found myself now, today, using physics kind of as a fuel of inspiration for music,” Kay said. “Because at this point I have put all my eggs in the basket of music. I am just totally in love with writing music.

“It’s what I want to do with my life.”

Although he doesn’t want to pursue physics as a career, it has remained a great source of inspiration.

“So there’s actually a lot of crossover between music and physics, and a lot of types of music use ideas of physics — the way that instruments behave according to physics, things like that that can inform your music,” he said. “And that’s what it does for me.”

His progression and output of work have been astonishing in a short amount of time after he took off with spectral music his junior year, Serghi said.

Kay played the clarinet and numerous other instruments, but had not formally written music until about two years ago. He initially wrote a short piece within 13 weeks that was performed by the William & Mary Orchestra, and since then he has composed scores that he and others have performed all over the world.

Kay spent the summer of his junior year traveling in Europe and the U.S. to participate in summer programs, writing music and meeting top music professors and composers, performing and recording. This, too, is unheard of for an undergraduate, Serghi said.

“He is incredibly talented in music, and it comes incredibly easy to him,” Serghi said. “I’ve never seen anybody excel so fast in my 20 years at William & Mary.”

His honors thesis was a 30-minute work that combines his knowledge of neutrons and protons, which Serghi described as him taking the particles in the beginning of time and analyzing their constitution into hertz — wave forms — and putting them into a piece of music for an ensemble.
Kay, a Richmond, Virginia, native, said he plans to obtain his master’s and doctorate, and to become a music faculty member in higher education while continuing to compose and perform.

His W&M years have been very full. He is active in both LBGTQ and Jewish groups on campus, and plays clarinet and some piano in the Wind Ensemble and viola in the Middle Eastern Ensemble, as well as saxophone and clarinet in some W&M musicals.

Kay said individual attention from faculty members helped his development most and praised the generosity of the financial resources the university made available for him to pursue his passion inside and outside of it.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself,” Kay said. “I feel like I’ve come into my own morally and ethically. I feel like I have stronger moral principles, things like that that I feel like I’ve gotten out of college.”

He provided the small example of learning he has an incredible passion for animal rights and deciding to eliminate meat from his diet.
The complete person he has developed into is very excited about the future, listing off all the upcoming performances of his music that will occur between now and the fall semester.

Kay said that is a vast acceleration from his slow start finding people to play his music. His first summer festival in Miami in 2015 featured his first summer piece premiere. Then performances occurred months apart, accelerating into what is now much more frequency.

“And now I have things happening like every few weeks, and it’s really exciting as a fresh, new composer on the scene who’s not used to having his music performed, to have all of these opportunities flood in,” Kay said.

“I feel very, very grateful that I’m now in this place where I have a steady stream of performances lined up and I’ve got opportunities. Because it definitely wasn’t there a couple years ago. And I didn’t ever really think I could be there now. So that feels really, really good.”