Willette earns Vulnerability in the Concert Space Composition Fellowship

Willette earns Vulnerability in the Concert Space Composition Fellowship

calendar icon28 Feb 2024    

Joey Willette
Joey Willette

Lincoln, Neb.--Joey Willette, who is pursuing a doctorate of musical arts in composition in the Glenn Korff School of Music, has received a Come As You Are (CAYA): Vulnerability in the Concert Space Composition Fellowship.

Six composers and librettists/writers were chosen nationally for the program. The composers will each be paired with a librettist/writer to create an opera scene to be premiered with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City on June 15. As a CAYA Composition Fellow, they will travel to Kansas City once a month to participate in readings, workshops and rehearsals. The fellowship is presented by No Divide Kansas City (NDKC), a non-profit dedicated to fostering artistic events that are focused on underrepresented and misrepresented communities.

“I was really surprised,” Willette said of his selection. “It was open to everyone nationally, so the fact that I was chosen was pretty exciting. The project is supposed to promote vulnerability in the concert space. I’m a queer person, so that’s something that really interested me. The organization that’s hosting it is called No Divide KC, and they’re a nonprofit that seeks to make artistic experiences for underrepresented communities. I worked in Kansas City before with nonprofits there, and they have a really strong arts community. I thought that all of those things really fit in well with my own artistic interests.”

Associate Professor of Composition and Jazz Studies Greg Simon said he is looking forward to what Willette creates with this fellowship.

“Joey has been an inspiration to teach and work with. Their work is beginning to occupy a unique space in the composition world, one that engages the listener with vulnerability and humor in equal parts,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what they come up with when working with opera as a performing force.”

Willette is partnered with Luke “Skippy” Harbur, a beatboxing specialist and performer from Kansas City, known for his cross-pollinated brand of alternative music touching on hip hop, Broadway, EDM and singer-songwriter influences. Since November 2021, he has written, produced and published more than 40 songs, created eight original productions and exceeded 300,000 total music streams.

“He is a professional beatboxer, which was really cool to find out,” Willette said. “Skippy has just this really magnetic, electric energy about him, and I feel like we work really well together.”

The two will create a 10-minute opera scene to be performed by Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

“I have SATB voices and a piano that I can work with,” Willette said. “My partner and I seem to be in the full force of that ensemble there. I don’t know much about it yet, but it’s developing.”

They only met for the first time at the first meeting on Feb. 10, so they are still in the early stages of developing their opera scene.

“We talked about our mutual interests and the things that we both find really interesting,” Willette said. “A big thing is drag. We’re both really into drag. It’s something I research a little on my own, but he also does a lot of performances at drag venues, as well as in his beatboxing career. So there’s definitely some aspect of drag that’s going to be part of the scene. We’re both a little quirky and a little silly and a little goofy. That kind of levity is something that’s definitely going to be part of the music as well.”

Willette’s only other experience with opera was to compose a chamber opera for his master’s thesis, but it was never performed.

“This scene is going to be performed with professional musicians with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, so I’m really hoping that this is a little bit of a debut for opera-composer Joey,” they said. “The opera world is kind of hard to break into, both as a composer and as a performer. To have the opportunity to meet with musicians who have been doing this professionally for years is incredibly valuable to me, as a professional composer, but also artistically.”

Originally from Panama City, Florida, Willette received his Bachelor’s degree in music education from Troy University, where they formally began composing. He received a Master’s degree in music composition from Wichita State before coming to UNL for his doctoral studies.

“I fiddled around a little bit [with composing] in middle school. There’s a program you can download for free called Noteworthy Composer, and it was terrible to work with, but I fiddled around with that,” they said. “But it wasn’t until about halfway through my undergrad that I started writing music and really thinking that I had a point of view or something to say with what I was writing. Once I finished my master’s degree in composition, I was like, okay, this is it. I definitely know what I’m wanting to do.”

He likes the freedom of composing.

“I like that I can do whatever I want,” they said. “And, of course, there are all the rules and all the rules I break because I can, and I think it’s fun. I like being able to trail my own path and have my own voice.”

Their music for solo instruments, chamber ensembles, wind band, choir and film has been performed around the world. Willette’s recent projects include collaborations with Jeb Wallace, Ann Ellsworth, and Alexander Shuhan on “Rites of Janus,” which premiered in 2023 at the Knob Fest in Wichita, Kansas.

A friend and Husker alumnus Tanner Harrod encouraged them to come to Nebraska for his doctoral studies.

“He introduced me to Dr. [Greg] Simon, who is my head professor, and Dr. Simon and I clicked really well,” they said. “He’s a really good mentor for me and is someone that I really enjoy working with. He’s someone who feels like he’s really interested and invested in what I’m doing, which was really important to me when I was looking for a place to go to school.”

Willette is excited to be one of the inaugural Come As You Are fellows.

“I’m working with one of the directors of Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and he’s someone who is working really closely with No Divide. I think it’s just so cool that they have a partnership like that. They plan on doing this again in the future, but this is the first inaugural fellowship for the Come As You Are program. I think it’s really cool to be part of the spearheading of that program, for sure,” they said.

Willette is also grateful for the professional connections they are making.

“The biggest thing for me is connections,” they said. “Those personal, professional connections with people who have the same values about music. I get along really well with everyone involved, and I think we all have the same mission to promote new music. That’s the biggest thing for me is just getting to meet people who have the same values as I do.”