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Composition Layers

Martin seeks to communicate human emotion in any context with his music

Aaron Martin playing cello

From The Ichabod - Winter 2019

Aaron Martin's global approach to writing music produces a unique sound that can bring out emotions in any context; like a banjo conveying the feelings movie watchers experience as a Hasidic Jewish widower struggles with raising his son.

Martin, b music ’05, ba ’05, writes and records instrumental music classified as ambient or modern classical. He went to high school in Silver Lake, Kansas, has a Potawatomi heritage and works with composers and producers all around the world.

The opportunity to score a movie was a surprise to him, but he was well prepared given his love of all art forms and a well-rounded education.

Martin trained at Washburn on cello, but in his Topeka home where he records, two closets are filled with 30 instruments, toys and items like a box of broken glass; all producing sounds that have layered his music.

“It used to be everything going on in my albums, but now I’ve narrowed it down to a more precise instrumentation because I think those are where I’ve really been able to find my voice,” he said.

Filmmaker Joshua Z Weinstein heard music co-recorded by Martin and Dag Rosenqvist, a Swedish composer, and liked it. He emailed Martin and asked them to work with him.

“Movies are an obsession of mine,” Martin said. “When I got an email out of nowhere from a director saying, ‘Would you score my film for me?’ I was really excited.”

The movie is “Menashe,” a Yiddish-language film set in New York, New York, about a Hasidic Jewish man who was recently widowed. According to tradition, he must remarry before he can regain custody of his son. He struggles with the choice to either follow tradition, plea for his rabbi to change his mind or defy his faith all together.

The director wanted Martin to adopt his cello to Jewish music styles. Instead, a different method entered Martin’s head. He played his bow on a banjo, creating a deep, plangent sound.

“The banjo was kind of a weird instrument to use for this Yiddish film, but it ended up working really well,” Martin said. “It appeals to human emotion, rather than a cultural context.”

Martin learned a lot in his first filmmaking experience despite never meeting the director or his fellow composer. He recorded his tracks at home and shared them digitally.

“Being exposed to all these different personalities, it not only opens my mind, but challenges me on how to communicate and move forward while still using my voice,” he said. “I’m used to creating a whole world with all these layers of meaning and emotion. With a film, a lot of those components are already there, and you’re filling a gap. You’re not telling the full story, you’re enhancing the story.”

Martin attended the premiere of “Menashe” at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, as well as a Q&A and composers' party. A24, which distributed Academy Award-winning best picture Moonlight in 2017, picked up Menashe and released it to theaters. The film was received well and got press coverage by NPR and The New York Times. It's available on various streaming services, DVD and Blu-ray Disc.

“Sundance was an eye-opening experience for me,” he said. “It gave me a larger impression about composing for film.”

Martin’s creative process has been aided by his education, but he wasn’t certain he would attend college until he earned a scholarship from the Blanche Bryden Foundation.

“When I was in high school, I was thinking, should I even go to college?” Martin said. “The scholarship changed my life. It relieved a lot of stress and allowed me to focus on my interests and take things like French classes and film classes. It allowed me to focus on exploring knowledge.”

His piano professor, Shiao-Li Ding, is from China, where she rigorously learned piano and not much else.

“I never had liberal arts education,” Ding said. “When I came to Washburn, I was totally unfamiliar with the idea of liberal arts education. Over the years, I gradually became fully convinced by the concept.”

Now she encourages many students to have a second major and receive a broader education.

“Aaron always had a book in his hand,” she said. “He liked to read. He’s interested in different cultures. He pretty much knew what he wanted to do, and he was very focused. I’m very proud of his progress.”

Martin has 16 solo releases on CD, vinyl, digital and even cassette; anything to appeal to a worldwide audience. He’s contributed to more than 75 other recordings. He scored the short film “Adam” about a South African surfer with terminal cancer, and his music was featured in the Warner Brothers movie “Midnight Special.” He and Rosenqvist will release an album soon with their collaborative name, From the Mouth of the Sun. He wants to score more movies as well.

“There’s something about just being in a room alone and creating something out of nothing that is satisfying to me,” he said.

Marching band member in uniform on cover of The Ichabod winter 2020

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2019-20 winter edition online and look for it in mailboxes in January.

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