Note by Note
By Leigh Savage '94
Sam Hunter took violin lessons at age 8, and quickly decided music was not for him. "I absolutely hated it," he says. But joining a chorus in middle school changed everything, and he found a passion for music that led him to become one of the first-ever composition majors at Furman. His progress was so rapid, he managed to debut an original piece of music in Italy and line up several high-profile commissions—all before he completed his degree in May 2011.
Hunter grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and earned a voice scholarship to Furman. While he enjoyed singing with Furman Singers and the Chamber Choir, he began focusing on his piano skills and his work as a composer, which he realized were the keys to his future.
"I had an influential teacher of mine tell me at age 16 that I needed to focus on composition," he says. "As much as I love singing, I have now spent six years focusing on composition and it's been a great choice."
Those who have worked with him agree. Mark Kilstofte, a theory and composition professor, considers him a trailblazer.
"He knew he wanted a composition degree before we even had one, so he is the pioneering composing student at Furman."
What differentiates composers from other music majors, Kilstofte says, is the desire to do many different things. "They have to want to know how things are going to work on a performance level, but they also have to have a curiosity about how to put it all together, similar to how an architect needs to know how all of the pieces come together," he says. "Sam always had this."
Despite Hunter's obvious talent and passion for composing, it surprised his professors and friends when, as a junior studying in Arezzo, Italy, he wrote a composition that was premiered by a professional choir.
Mark Britt, chair of the music department, says having a piece premiere in Europe was an exciting first for Hunter. "He worked
with Lorenzo Donati, a well-known conductor in Europe," Britt says. "He
liked Sam's work, had him write the piece, and they performed it. It was
a big thing."
Hunter not only wrote the piece but included the instruments of all the
students studying with him in Italy. "He made it work so all of the
students in our Study Away program could perform on the premier," Britt
The experience gave Hunter a glimpse of his future. "The entire study-away program was incredible," he says. "It made me realize I
could do composition on a full-time basis. I was able to center my mind
and I made myself a productive composer."
His ability to produce has already been put to the test. This summer,
the Anglican Association of Musicians is hosting a national conference
in Asheville and Greenville, and Hunter was commissioned to write a
piece for chorus and orchestra.
"It's a wonderful opportunity, because it means that all of these
musicians from all over the country are going to hear my piece, sing it,
and take it home with them," he says. "It's an opportunity to broaden
my reach as a composer."
It is unique for a student to receive a commission to write for a
top-level group at such a young age, according to Britt. "They usually
choose more established composers," he says. He attributes the early
success in part to Hunter's appreciation for and understanding of
diverse types of music. "Also, he writes music that is enjoyable to
listen to." Britt says. "I think that's what has drawn organizations to
Kilstofte says he has always been impressed with Hunter's work ethic
and prolific musical output. "Even as a freshman and sophomore, he
produced more music than most upperclassmen," he says. "He was really
driven and exceptionally self-motivated." He later found out that Hunter
had stockpiled even more compositions that he hadn't had a chance to
bring to class.
Hunter's plans include attending the University of Houston this fall to earn a master's degree in composition. He would ultimately like to earn his doctorate, but first, he'd like to spend a few years in Eastern Europe. "My top choice is Estonia, because they have a really strong choral music tradition,"he says. If he can earn a grant, perhaps a Fulbright, to study there, "I would love to sing in a choir there and make their folk music part of my style."
He worked as a teaching assistant while at Furman, and ultimately, he sees a future in higher education. "Nothing would make me happier than to write and teach at a university, teaching theory and composition," he says. "That would be wonderful."
Listen to some of Sam's compositions at samuelhunter.net.